The federal prosecutors’ revolt against Holder — the letter

I wrote here about the revolt of hundreds of career prosecutors against Attorney General Holder over his support for legislation that would drastically cut back on mandatory minimum sentences for drug pushers. Their letter to Holder now appears on National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys website.

The letter is phrased respectfully, of course. No one wants to insult the boss. But it presents very forceful opposition to Holder’s position on criminal sentencing, a central issue in the administration of justice.

Bill Otis, who served for decades as a federal prosecutor, finds this open opposition to the AG by his career prosecutors “unprecedented.” If it had happened during the Bush administration, it would be front page news. Because this is a Democratic administration, it’s going virtually unreported, as far as I can tell.

In any event, here are the key portions of the letter to Holder:

[A]fter considerable deliberation, we believe we are obligated to express our concern over your actions last Thursday in announcing support for Congressional action that would weaken mandatory minimum sentencing. . . .

We believe the merits of mandatory minimums are abundantly clear. They reach to only the most serious crimes. They target the most serious criminals. They provide us leverage to secure cooperation from defendants. They help to establish. . .consistency in sentencing. And foremost, they protect law-abiding citizens and help to keep crime in check.

In the 1980s, our country underwent a crime epidemic that took root in significant measure because of the proliferation of crack cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and PCP in communities across America. Violence became rampant; thirty years ago, the murder rate was twice what it is now, and the overall crime rate was not far behind.

Bipartisan majorities in Congress took action. They passed mandatory sentencing laws to combat the most pernicious of crimes. Such laws, while properly continuing to give judges substantial discretion in the great majority of cases, limited discretion in a few, very serious cases. Among the laws Congress passed were mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking that required judges to give at least a rock bottom sentence for the most harmful offences.

As a result, we now have more uniformity in sentencing and, most importantly, crime is now half of what it was in the era before mandatory minimum sentences took hold. The principal beneficiaries of this massive crime reduction are those who were disproportionately crime victims in the past — minority groups, particularly those in the inner cities. When crime starts to rise, as it did before mandatory sentencing laws and will again if we tear down the statutes that have helped keep us safe, minorities, disproportionately, will be the victims. The rest of our citizens won’t be far behind.

As you know, mandatory minimum sentences are a critical tool in persuading defendants to cooperate, thereby enabling law enforcement to dismantle large drug organizations and violent gangs. Present law provides numerous opportunities for deserving defendants to avoid mandatory sentences through: cooperation in providing information about other criminals and criminal enterprises; plea bargaining, which resolves the vast majority of federal cases; the “Safety Valve,” which has allowed tens of thousands of defendants to receive lower sentences; and executive clemency, which President Obama recently employed.

Our present system strikes the right balance between the need for guided sentencing discretion and the imperative for preserving the huge gains we have made against crime. We believe our current sentencing laws have kept us safe and should be preserved, not weakened. We ask you to keep our views in mind in the Department’s future actions on this subject. Thank you for your attention to our concerns.

It strikes me as unduly optimistic to believe that Holder will pay any attention to the concerns of the men and women who prosecute crimes for the United States.

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