Will Trump’s New AG Be Better on Criminal Justice Than Sessions? Here's What the Record Suggests

As attorney general, Barr would likely continue defending the ineffective criminal justice paradigm of the past and stifle any opportunity for further reform.

On January 15, President Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, began his confirmation hearings to see if the Senate will approve him as the replacement for Jeff Sessions. But in the eyes of the public, Barr is unlikely to fare any better than Sessions since Trump’s nominee is known for his support for property seizure and the failed war on drugs. When you add in his opposition to reasonable criminal justice reform, it becomes clear that Barr is not an improvement over Sessions.

That’s saying something. When Sessions took over the Justice Department, he reversed many of the modest but meaningful reforms previously enacted by the Obama administration. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, for instance, had instructed his attorneys not to prosecute people in states that had legalized marijuana. The Obama administration also blocked military-grade hardware, like armored vehicles, from going to local law enforcement agencies, which needlessly militarizes the police force and increases the potential for abuse. Sessions undermined this progress on both fronts. Yet perhaps his most egregious offense as attorney general was reversing Holder’s decision to limit how much property the federal government could take through a process known as civil asset forfeiture.

Legalized Theft

Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property “on the mere suspicion that it is connected to criminal activity,” according to the libertarian law firm Institute for Justice. This forces defendants, often poor citizens, to go through complicated legal procedures to get their property back, and they often face thousands of dollars in fees even without any evidence of wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, this process usually doesn’t work out in their favor. Even when it does, they usually spend years going through the court system. For example, a grandmother in Philadelphia lost her home because her son sold less than $200 worth of marijuana from her back porch. She spent seven years fighting her way through court, ultimately winning in 2017 before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.In 1991, during his confirmation hearings for his first tenure as attorney general, Barr wholeheartedly supported civil asset forfeiture, describing the federal government’s ability to seize property as an “important” program to combat crime—and nothing today suggests he has changed his mind.

It’s extremely concerning that Barr has a long history of supporting civil asset forfeiture. In 1991, during his confirmation hearings for his first tenure as attorney general, he wholeheartedly supported civil asset forfeiture, describing the federal government’s ability to seize property as an “important” program to combat crime. Though he acknowledged the potential for a "speed-trap mentality" to develop, he declined to reject the practice outright, and nothing today suggests he has changed his mind. Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has voiced concern over Barr’s views on forfeiture, calling them disturbing.

Luckily, it’s likely that the Supreme Court could limit some of the worst abuses of civil asset forfeiture in the coming months, but it is still disturbing to see such an unfair practice supported by the nominee for the nation’s top law enforcement position. Sessions ended any chance for forfeiture reform when he reversed Eric Holder’s changes to the program, and if confirmed, it seems Barr will continue to take us down this disappointing path.

Rejecting Reform

As attorney general, Barr would likely continue defending the ineffective criminal justice paradigm of the past and stifle any opportunity for further reform.

In addition, Barr has opposed even modest, bipartisan criminal justice reform, such as the First Step Act, which was recently signed into law by President Trump, who is not exactly “soft” on crime. One of the main reasons why criminal justice reform was delayed this late into the Trump presidency was because of Jeff Sessions, who opposed the legislation. As attorney general, Barr would likely continue defending the ineffective criminal justice paradigm of the past and stifle any opportunity for further reform.

So there is only one proper course for the Senate to follow. Reject William Barr as Attorney General and pressure President Trump to pick an attorney general who wants to protect the rights of all Americans—not one who supports the failed criminal justice policies of the past.