I joined the Department of Justice straight out of law school in 1974. I spent 25 years there, split between Main Justice in Washington and the US Attorney's Office. Today something happened that, in my experience, is unprecedented. Hundreds of career lawyers broke into open revolt against the Attorney General on a matter of prepossessing importance to federal sentencing. If something like that had happened in the Bush Administration, I guarantee you it would be a Page One story. Whether it gets any coverage at all in the present Administration remains to be seen.
The Attorney General announced last week that he would support the Durbin-Lee bill pending in the Senate. That legislation would drastically cut back on mandatory minimum sentences for drug pushers -- not just for pot, but for all drug offenses, including major and repeat trafficking in heroin, meth, PCP and other extremely dangerous, and often lethal, drugs.
As career DOJ prosecutors know, strong mandatory minimum statutes are essential to rein in the sometimes ideological, sometimes naive, and sometimes careless decisions of sentencing courts. I explained why here, here and here, keying off a recent discussion by the Second Circuit.
When the Attorney General decided to join the effort to kneecap mandatory minimums, career attorneys could remain silent no longer.
Today, Chuck Grassley, the Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, read aloud from a letter the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys sent Mr. Holder three days ago. The part Sen. Grassley read states:
We believe the merits of mandatory minimums are abundantly clear. They reach to only the most serious of crimes. They target the most serious criminals. They provide us leverage to secure cooperation from defendants. They help to establish uniform and consistency in sentencing. And foremost, they protect law-abiding citizens and help to hold crime in check.
I will provide the entire letter in a subsequent post. For now, I want to make only three points.
First, as the letter notes, the increased use of incarceration, of which mandatory minimum sentencing has been an important part, has been a key to the tremendous gains the country has made over the last generation in suppressing crime, which is now lower than we have seen for 50 years. I have discussed this before, for example, here.
Second, the fact that hundreds of career prosecutors -- not political appointees, but the men and women in US Attorney's Offices across the country hired on merit -- have revolted against the Attorney General is a development whose importance is difficult to overstate.
Career prosecutors, I can tell you from experience, are uncomfortable taking any role in what could be portrayed as a political issue. They are Republicans, Democrats and Independents, and generally have all the differences of opinion one would expect from a group so large and diverse. They view divorcing themselves from politics as essential. That they have spoken up here, and done so publicly, is a testament to how dreadfully damaging they know the Durbin-Lee bill would be.
Last, their stance is an act of courage. These people are subordinates of the Attorney General. Stepping up to blow the whistle on what he's proposing -- and telling the truth about what is actually going to happen with crime and crime victims if we slash sentencing for the most dangerous drugs traffickers -- exemplifies guts, and a devotion to public service in which the country can take heart.
To my former colleagues for their courage, my hat is off.