More than Mueller: Senators must ask Barr about criminal justice policy
© Greg Nash

A few weeks ago, I stood in the Oval Office next to President TrumpDonald John TrumpAverage tax refunds down double-digits, IRS data shows White House warns Maduro as Venezuela orders partial closure of border with Colombia Trump administration directs 1,000 more troops to Mexican border MORE as he signed the First Step Act into law. That bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support last congressional session, was the most substantial overhaul of the federal prison system in decades. Tens of thousands of people in federal prison and their family members will benefit from a renewed focus on rehabilitation and second chances, not just punishment.

As excited as we are, there is still a looming threat that could undermine progress. The upcoming confirmation of a new attorney general.

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Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings to consider William Barr for attorney general. If confirmed, he would immediately become the single most important person in realizing the positive benefits of the First Step Act and in overseeing our federal criminal justice system.

As attorney general, one of Barr’s first responsibilities should be to nominate a new director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The former director, Mark Inch, abruptly resigned in May 2018 after just nine months on the job. It was reported that one of the primary reasons for Inch’s departure was an internal tug-of-war between then-Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump says he hasn't spoken to Barr about Mueller report Ex-Trump aide: Can’t imagine Mueller not giving House a ‘roadmap’ to impeachment Rosenstein: My time at DOJ is 'coming to an end' MORE and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerFive things to know about Trump confidant Tom Barrack Dems open new front against Trump Dems launch investigation into Trump administration's dealings with Saudi Arabia MORE, senior advisor to President Trump, over the drafting of First Step Act.

Now that the legislation has passed, the new attorney general and BOP director will be responsible for putting its many provisions into practice. That will be no small task across more than 120 prison facilities, nearly 40,000 prison staff, and a total prison population of 186,000 people.

Senate Judiciary hearings will understandably be consumed with questions about Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation but senators must also ask Mr. Barr tough questions about his views on crime, public safety, and the implementation of the First Step Act.

Unfortunately, Barr’s history is cause for concern. During his first stint as attorney general, Mr. Barr authored a report titled The Case For More Incarceration, which began with the following introductory paragraph:

 

“Ask many politicians, newspaper editors, or criminal justice ‘experts’ about our prisons, and you will hear that our problem is that we put too many people in prison. The truth, however, is to the contrary; we are incarcerating too few criminals, and the public is suffering as a result.”


More recently, Barr praised Jeff Sessions’ criminal justice policies and opposed bipartisan reform proposals in Congress. These are not good signs.

As written and passed by Congress, the First Step Act brings substantial changes to our federal prison and sentencing laws: scaling back of some of the harshest mandatory minimum sentences; creating an entirely new Risk and Needs Assessment system within the Bureau of Prisons; implementing a new “Earned Time Credits” system; an analysis of prison programming and their impact on recidivism; moving people to facilities within 500 driving miles of their families; ensuring that pregnant women are no longer shackled or placed in solitary confinement; and new levers of accountability and oversight.

Getting Mr. Barr on record about how he will handle the implementation of these provisions of the First Step Act could be nearly as important as the passage of the legislation itself.

To truly realize the benefits of these many ambitious provisions, the new attorney general will need to embrace the same values and ideals that propelled the bill through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee must take the time to ask him tough questions about his views.

Jessica Jackson is the Cofounder and National Director of #cut50, a bipartisan initiative to reduce crime and incarceration in all 50 states. She is a human rights attorney who began her career representing men and women on California's death row in their appeals.