Skip to main content

Race & Justice News: Department of Justice Frames Reforms as Anti-Police

December 18, 2019

The Department of Justice has framed policing and prosecutorial reforms as anti-police. In recent months, other DOJ officials have joined Attorney General William Barr in similarly framing local prosecutorial reforms.

Race and Justice News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Department of Justice Frames Policing and Prosecutorial Reforms as Anti-Police

Americans “have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves,” Attorney General William Barr said during a Department of Justice ceremony honoring police officers. He added: “If communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.” Tim Elfrink of the Washington Post explains that activists viewed Barr’s speech as an attack on communities of color that have protested police brutality and bias. 

In recent months, other DOJ officials have joined Barr in similarly framing local prosecutorial reforms. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen has argued, “prosecutors are essentially flipping the script, casting criminals as victims and police as villains” and U.S. Attorney William McSwain has attacked Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. In response to Barr’s claim that District attorneys who are “‘social justice’ reformers… spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law,” Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (incoming), Mark Gonzalez, and Wesley Bell—district attorneys in Virginia, Texas, and Missouri respectively—noted that many in law enforcement have joined prosecutors in calling for change. Rachel Rollins, Suffolk (Boston area) District Attorney, has responded: “If being a ‘social justice’ prosecutor means being committed to the fair administration of justice—for all, not just those who have power, influence, and money—then I am proud of the title.”

Justice Department Unveils Plan to Address Missing and Murdered Native Americans

U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative—a national plan to increase the federal government’s role in reducing the number of Native Americans who are murdered or reported missing every year. An estimated 1.5 million Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetimes. The Associated Press reports federal studies have found that women are killed at a rate of more than 10 times the national average on some reservations. The new initiative would invest $1.5 million for coordinators who are responsible for developing protocols for improved law enforcement response in 11 U.S. Attorney offices with sizeable caseloads affecting Native Americans, as well as an intensive data analysis to determine if information gathering can be improved in missing persons cases.

“American Indian and Alaska Native people suffer from unacceptable and disproportionately high levels of violence, which can have lasting impacts on families and communities,” Barr said in a statement. Based on the scale of the issue, some tribal members question how much impact the initiative will have. Amber Crotty, a lawmaker on the Navajo Nation, noted the plan only offers a “slice” of the resources they have been advocating for.

“Where’s Your Medical Marijuana Card?” Philadelphia Probationers Are Asked

Although Philadelphia has decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, “judges and probation officers continue to punish people for using the drug, resulting in court-mandated treatment, extended probation, and even incarceration,” write Philadelphia Inquirer’s Samantha Melamed and Dylan Purcell. In Philadelphia, where 36,000 people are on probation or parole, African Americans were on probation at a rate 54% higher than whites. Philadelphia’s adult probation department flagged over 11,000 drug tests as positive for marijuana in 2018.

unnamed (6)

Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Scott DiClaudio urges those on probation to abstain from marijuana or obtain a medical-marijuana card. Philadelphia Inquirer / Jessica Griffin

Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Scott DiClaudio said his thinking has evolved since he sentenced Melonie Alvarado to a month of house arrest, followed by 22 months of parole and three more years of probation, for her use of marijuana without a medical card near the end of her probation. He’s now more likely to order marijuana users to community service. Alvarado underscored the impact of her poverty: “If she’d had $50 for the state ID card, plus $150 or so for a doctor, none of this would have happened,” write Melamed and Purcell. This year, New York City lawmakers barred their probation department from testing for marijuana in nearly all cases, as Washington State has done. Philadelphia’s District Attorney Larry Krasner has ordered his prosecutors to not prosecute marijuana possession and to terminate some marijuana users from drug treatment court.

Prosecutor and Judge Point to Mississippi Statute to Explain Juvenile Transfer Disparity

At age 13, Isaiah took his older brother’s BB gun and used it to rob a classmate of his smartphone. Isaiah was charged under Mississippi law as if he were an adult and sent to solitary confinement in Neshoba County’s adult jail. District Attorney Steven Kilgore opted to prosecute Isaiah and Judge Mark Duncan denied the first motion to move him to juvenile court. Both claimed to have their hands tied—“Bound by Statute”—as Reveal titled its closer look at Isaiah’s story as context for understanding the transfer of youth into adult courts. Over the last 25 years, 5,000 Mississippi youth under age 18 have been charged as if they were adults, a decline from the past. But racial disparities persist: three-quarters of these youth, like Isaiah, were African American, while African Americans comprise half of the state’s youth. 

Reporters Ko Bragg and Melissa Lewis explain that in Mississippi, children over the age of 13 who are arrested for a crime involving a weapon (real or perceived) go directly into the adult system. They also found white youth are much more likely to have their cases sent to the juvenile system after an initial adult charge and African American youth serve longer sentences in the adult system than their white peers. A second motion to move Isaiah to juvenile court was successful, a rarity in these cases, and he was committed to the Oakley Youth Development Center.

Anthology of Personal and Critical Essays on Race and Incarceration with Michigan Focus

Incarceration and Race in Michigan: Grounding the National Debate in State Practice is an anthology of essays, stories, and art on race and incarceration edited by Lynn Scott and Curtis Stokes, inspired by ten conferences on race at Michigan State University since 1999. With chapters examining the causes and historical origins of racial and ethnic disparities in the adult and juvenile justice systems, the book also includes a chapter by D. Quentin Miller examining the proliferation of prison literature during the era of mass incarceration. Miller identifies four categories of literature engaging with the experience of incarceration: by writers who experienced prison secondhand, such as James Baldwin, by writers with well-known experiences of incarceration, such as Malcolm X, by those whose writing careers began in prison, such as R. Dwayne Betts, and by educators or volunteers such as the author. “The study of prison literature can help readers of all races gain an appreciation for the complexity of the intersection between race and incarceration,” writes Miller.

Related Posts
July 20, 2022

Comment on Home Confinement Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act

The Sentencing Project's Executive Director Amy Fettig submitted comments to the Office of the Attorney General on behalf of The Sentencing project regarding the United States Department of Justice’s proposed rule on CARES Act Home Confinement.
July 27, 2022

Comments to the Food and Drug Administration on the Proposed Ban of Menthol Cigarettes

The Sentencing Project submitted comments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the proposed Tobacco Product Standard for Menthol in Cigarettes.