Alberto Gonzales: Refocusing our Criminal Justice System

As the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Eric Holder was correct in speaking out earlier this week about the challenges to our criminal justice system. I agree with much of what he said and several of his recommendations. In a time of shrinking budgets, the Department of Justice should better spend its resources wisely, and better coordinate with state and local law enforcement, objectives we worked hard to achieve under President George W. Bush. 

While most of the changes discussed by General Holder are commendable, refocusing on (...) other values for America’s youth will go a long way in reducing the burden on our criminal justice system.

- Alberto Gonzales. Former U.S. Attorney General

The Attorney General is correct in saying we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. Education, rehabilitation, and treatment is often a better way, particularly for non-violent offenders. I was also pleased to see the Attorney General acknowledge DOJ priorities of national security, combating violent crime, fighting against financial fraud, and safeguarding the most vulnerable members of our society. 

The Attorney General expressed reservations about the harsh results of the mandatory minimum sentences imposed by Congress for certain minor drug offenses, and he called for greater discretion by federal prosecutors in charging these offenses. The mandatory minimum requirements for sentencing, and to some extent the Department’s charging policy, were intended to promote uniformity in the overall administration of justice. Defendants in Vermont should not be punished differently from defendants in Texas for essentially the same conduct. It is ironic that in the same speech in which the Attorney General laments the racial disparity in our criminal justice system, he announces a change in charging policy that creates the potential for even greater sentencing disparity by giving more discretion to federal prosecutors. While I agree that prosecutors should have discretion, Congress and the American people should monitor this new policy carefully to ensure such discretion is not abused. 

I agree with the Attorney General that new solutions are necessary for our war on drugs. However, I worry that what he calls a new approach is in reality a surrender, at least when it comes to recreational use of marijuana. The Attorney General’s decision to not prosecute minor drug offenses, coupled with the Department’s indecision to challenge state constitutional amendments in Washington and Colorado legalizing recreational marijuana use, sends an unmistakable message to our young that recreational drug use will be tolerated. The administration has already developed a disturbing pattern of selectively declining to enforce laws simply because it disagrees with the policy choices of the Congress. It is dangerous when the Executive intentionally disregards congressional statutes not otherwise unconstitutional, especially in the arena of domestic policy. The President’s repeated failure to faithfully execute the law upsets the balance of powers between the elected branches.

Finally, while I appreciate the Attorney General speaking out on the values of a just criminal justice system, it may have been more beneficial for the Hispanic and African American community for the administration to speak out more forcefully for the institution of marriage, and the importance of a safe and stable home where there is a father or father-figure who can serve as a role model. The most important job of any parent is to be present to raise their child, to instill the values of self-accountability and responsibility, and to learn respect for self, others, God and country. While most of the changes discussed by General Holder are commendable, refocusing on these other values for America’s youth will go a long way in reducing the burden on our criminal justice system.

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Alberto R. Gonzales is the former U.S. Attorney General and White House Counsel in the George W. Bush Administration. Presently he is the Dean and Doyle Rogers Distinguished Professor of Law at Belmont University College of Law.  

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