Sally Yates: Criminal justice reform is not dead

Sally Yates: Criminal justice reform is not dead
© Greg Nash

Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates isn’t giving up on reforming the nation’s criminal justice system.

“I don’t believe criminal justice reform is dead. It may be on life support, but it isn’t dead,” she said while speaking to a packed house at Georgetown Law on Wednesday afternoon.


Yates, who gained notoriety for refusing to defend President Trump’s travel ban, said bipartisan support for the issue and progress at the state level has her hopeful.

“We have to recognize that some people are coming at this for different reasons,” she said.

“For some people, it’s purely fiscal that even if we wanted to keep incarcerating people at the same levels we just simply can’t afford to do this. Some folks come at it from a faith or a redemption perspective, some from a social justice perspective. ... I don’t really care what your motivation is or what gets you there the important thing is that we get there.”

The former deputy attorney general in the Obama administration admits as a career prosecutor for 27 years she believes people should be punished for the crimes they commit. But she said unfair and disproportionate sentences have led to a prison population of more than 2.2 million people at a cost over $80 billion a year.

Every dollar being spent to keep someone in prison for longer than they need to be, Yates said, is a dollar that could go to law enforcement and inmate reform programs to make communities safer.

“If we’re as willing to invest in education as much as we are in building prisons, I can’t help but believe that we would be in a much stronger position on the prevention side,” she said.

In January, Trump fired Yates from her post as acting attorney general just hours after she refused to have the Justice Department defend his executive order blocking people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.