One of the many highlights of President Joe Biden’s inaugural address was his promise that “we can achieve racial justice.” The Biden government wasted no time in backing up executive action and issued several orders promoting racial justice. But “personnel is politics”, as the saying goes. And just as important as the new direction these guidelines set is who is doing the work.
However, changing the latter could be delayed – something this government and the people in need of justice cannot afford.
A memo released last month by Justice Department chief Lee Lofthus gave many Trump officials the green light to stay for the time being. “
The US Department of Justice is bearing much of the burden of ending mass detention and reforming policing, starting not just with a policy reset but also with new, more progressive US lawyers.
Judge Merrick Garland, candidate for attorney general, speaks during an event with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris.
While Biden has already announced his intention to replace at least one U.S. attorney and some have resigned, it is unclear when or if others will be removed.
Even more alarming is the apparent delay in considering Biden’s candidate for Attorney General. Congress appeared ready to set a date for Judge Merrick Garland’s hearing last week. But his nomination has stalled as others have advanced.
A politicized department
We should keep in mind that there are 93 US attorneys running 94 districts across the country and American territories. Local federal prosecutors handle all types of cases from civil rights and police abuse to hate crimes and drug prosecution. In this work, the municipalities are most affected by the federal penal system.
Equally important, the Department of Justice through its Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office supports state and local leaders in pursuing racial justice and research-based police reforms. The Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is responsible for managing national juvenile justice issues that affect young people in our country. Yet the leader of the OJJDP was left vacant for years under the Obama administration.
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Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department (and thus the Federal Prosecutor’s Office) was deeply politicized. Amid concerns over corruption and collusion with Russia, Trump took the unprecedented step of interviewing candidates for a US lawyer, according to Politico. Some were expected to be faithful to Trump’s agenda – crackdown on immigrants, impose stricter drug sentences, and threaten to block marijuana legalization. Some followed Trump’s lead in his personal crusades against the Biden family in an attempt to undermine the Russia investigation.
Those who did not bow to Trump’s will have been fired or evicted.
Moving slowly to replace the Trump-appointed people would be the wrong step for at least two reasons. First, current lawyers are struck by the mistakes of the Trump administration. You may not have come up with Trump’s agenda, but you enabled him to carry it out.
In Massachusetts, for example, at the height of the coronavirus, the U.S. law firm fought a federal judge who wanted to release inmates at risk of the virus from immigration and customs. The US assistant attorney stated in court: “There is no evidence, no evidence, COVID-19 is present in the inmate population.”
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That consideration has been upheld by federal prosecutors across the country, despite the fact that more than 200 people have died of the disease in federal prisons.
In Pennsylvania, the US attorney used time, energy and tax money in a legal battle to prevent a life-saving, evidence-based, safe drug consumption room from opening up.
Many US law firms participated in former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s gun ownership law enforcement program, which was primarily aimed at black men. Many randomly stopped and sentenced for low-level crimes.
Every day, these lawyers stay in office and continue to make decisions that affect the lives of countless Americans. This includes how COVID-19 is being handled behind bars, when and how police accountability is being managed, and how the rebuilding of community trust is progressing.
The COPS chairman, chairman of the controversial Trump Commission on Law Enforcement and Justice Administration, has already left.
Fulfilling this critical role and leadership position at OJJDP is critical to begin the ambitious judicial transformations that Biden is committed to carrying out.
New start for criminal justice reform
Starting over with a new list of US lawyers and DOJ leaders who share a new vision for justice would reflect the transformative moment we find ourselves in. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke of the need for criminal justice reform and their desire to rethink the police force.
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To implement these types of guidelines, one needs to move away from the traditional attorney’s mindset. Biden needs lawyers and DOJ leaders who are committed to reform. It means looking for examples of leaders committed to systemic change in the burgeoning reformist movement of state and local prosecutors. It means looking at defenders and defenders who know the other side of the federal judicial system and what it takes to reform it. And it means appreciating diversity and personal experience with the flaws of the judicial system.
Local progressive prosecutors in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City have already shown what can be done. They have set up conviction integrity units to exonerate wrongly convicted persons, instituted procedures to review and reduce harsh sentences, stopped prosecuting many crimes related to poverty and racial diversity such as drug possession and sex work, and brought law enforcement to justice. This agenda would be a breath of fresh air.
On January 20, Biden said: “We are moved by a call for racial justice that has been going on for some 400 years. The dream of justice for all is no longer postponed. “
This cry must be heard and obeyed in the halls of the Department of Justice and in the offices of its lawyers across the country.
Shay Bilchik, founder and director emeritus of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, previously headed the juvenile justice and delinquency prevention office at the US Department of Justice.
Miriam Aroni Krinsky, managing director and founder of Fair and Just Prosecution, is a former federal prosecutor.
This article originally appeared in the US TODAY: Delays in Hearing Garland, Replacing Lawyers, Endangering the Justice System
Originally published February 2, 2021, 8:07 p.m.