After the tenure of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, advocates for civil rights, decarceration and police accountability are frustrated and furious.
Sessions jump-started the failed war on drugs, rescinded protections for transgender students and workplace protections for LGBTQ people, undermined federal efforts to hold local police accountable for racism and violence, and defended the Trump administration’s ill-fated family separation policy that helped create the humanitarian crisis on the southern border. The list goes on.
Sessions was forced out of office in November for reasons that have nothing to do with civil rights. Indeed, next week’s Senate hearings on President Trump’s nomination of William Barr to be his successor are likely to focus on Barr’s views of presidential power and whether he would interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election meddling.
However, advocates warn that Barr’s record on issues from drug policy to immigration and women’s rights is cause for grave concern. So is a striking endorsement of mass incarceration that Barr issued while serving as attorney general during the height the drug war in the early 1990s.
Kristine Lucius, vice president of policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Barr’s record suggests that he would continue taking the Justice Department in the same direction as Sessions. At next week’s hearings, she says, senators should demand Barr demonstrate that he will not continue to “turn back the clock” on civil rights for immigrants, LGBTQ people and communities of color.
“We believe civil rights needs to be the main thrust when the Senate decides whether William Barr should be the next attorney general,” Lucius said.
Lucius said the just application of civil rights laws depends on the Justice Department’s ability to act fairly and independently, particularly under a president like Trump, who has been eager to attack the civil rights of citizens and noncitizens alike in pursuit of his hardline “law and order” agenda. Trump and Sessions may have butted heads over Mueller, but they shared a love of racist law enforcement and a public disdain for immigrants and communities of color that they paint as sources of drugs and crime.
Barr’s record on civil rights is now setting off alarm bells as it emerges into the spotlight, and he appears to share many of Sessions and Trump’s views on immigration, law enforcement, drugs and incarceration. For example, Barr wrote that the travel restrictions on Muslim countries Trump put in place after taking office (commonly known as the “Muslim Ban”) were within his constitutional authority. Federal judges disagreed and the ban was thrown out in court, even after revisions.
“After the nightmare we had with Jeff Sessions, we didn’t think we could go much lower, but William Barr gives Sessions a run for his money,” said Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for approaching drugs as a public health issue rather than criminal problem.
In 2015, Barr joined a group of arch-conservatives in urging lawmakers to oppose a bipartisan prison reform bill that would have reduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. Sessions also opposed the legislation, to the frustration of Sen. Check Grassley and other Republicans working with Democrats on a compromise that would very modestly reduce mass incarceration.
Eager for a victory, Trump signed a similar – though even more tepid – bill into law after it passed a Republican-controlled Congress last year. While the bill’s prison reforms do not go nearly far enough to meaningfully reduce the nation’s prison population and could have consequences for marginalized people, they have been heralded as a rare bipartisan effort to address the incarceration rates that make the United States the prison capital of the world. However, even these minimal reforms may hit a roadblock if the attorney general does not like them.
“Much of that legislation has to be implemented by the attorney general, and putting Barr in that position raises the question of whether the administration ever cared about criminal justice reform,” Collins said.
Collins said that the Senate went easy on Sessions during his confirmation hearings because he served there for years, although he went on to butt heads with former colleagues – including Republicans – over issues like sentencing and legal marijuana. Advocates urge that they should not do the same with Barr, who previously served as attorney general under George H.W. Bush at the height of the war on drugs in the early 1990s.
“The consensus has been that we need a public health approach to the [overdose] crisis, yet Barr … has the same mindset as Sessions, and is likely to pursue the same failed drug war strategies of locking up drug users and pushing for tough sentences that do nothing to reduce all those deaths and serve only to increase the prison population, usually through the incarceration of people of color,” Collins said, adding that Barr’s daughter is the point person for opioid prosecutions at the Justice Department.
Collins said Barr is partially responsible for today’s mass incarceration crisis. In 1992, then-Attorney General Barr endorsed a report titled “The Case for More Incarceration,” which criticized efforts to reduce the prison population and argued that the government should be focused on building more cages and filling them instead.
Perhaps the darkest memory from this period is a program overseen by Barr that forced thousands of asylum seekers fleeing violence in Haiti into a brutal detention camp at Guantanamo Bay because they were living with HIV. Immigrant rights activists see parallels between that crisis and the plight of migrants arriving at the border with Mexico.
Avideh Moussavian, legislative director of the National Immigration Law Center, said Barr could continue Sessions’s efforts to strip immigration judges of their independence as they deal with an unprecedented backlog of immigration cases. The backlog has been exacerbated by Trump administration policies allowing more noncitizens to be indiscriminately targeted for deportation.
“Other Sessions polices that Barr could pursue [include] taking away from survivors of domestic violence and gang violence the ability to claim asylum,” Moussavian said.
Barr also authorized a system for collecting phone call data in bulk as part of an effort to catch international drug traffickers. This became the blueprint for the National Security Agency’s notorious mass surveillance program revealed by Edward Snowden, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The program authorized by Barr required phone companies to secretly hand over all phone records of calls between the US and more than 100 other countries where authorities believe drug traffickers to be operating.
Barr went on to work as general counsel for the telecom giant Verizon, where he lobbied to Congress to give telecoms immunity from private lawsuits for participating in mass government surveillance programs. At the time, Barr argued that the public does not have constitutional privacy protections for data held by third parties, according to the ACLU.
Additionally, civil rights groups are concerned about statements Barr has made about LGBTQ people and Roe v. Wade dating back to the 1990s, when many conservatives opposed gay rights and reproductive rights across the board. Now, it’s up to the Senate to determine whether his views have changed over the years. That can only happen if senators’ questions reach beyond President Trump and Mueller’s investigation.