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Bill Barr blasted by rights advocates for ‘absolutely despicable’ speech

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Attorney General William Barr. (Shane T. McCoy / US Marshals)

U.S. Attorney General William Barr was swiftly criticized by rights advocates on Monday for a speech in which he promised to deliver a bill—requested by President Donald Trump—to expedite certain death sentences and took aim at “district attorneys that style themselves as ‘social justice’ reformers.”

Speaking at the Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police’s 64th National Biennial Conference in New Orleans, Barr called such reformers “demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety,” accusing them of “undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.”

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Without naming names, the attorney general continued:

These anti-law enforcement DAs have tended to emerge in jurisdictions where the election is largely determined by the primary. Frequently, these candidates ambush an incumbent DA in the primary with misleading campaigns and large infusions of money from outside groups.

Once in office, they have been announcing their refusal to enforce broad swathes of the criminal law. Most disturbing is that some are refusing to prosecute cases of resisting police.  Some are refusing to prosecute various theft cases or drug cases, even where the suspect is involved in distribution. And when they do deign to charge a criminal suspect, they are frequently seeking sentences that are pathetically lenient. So these cities are headed back to the days of revolving door justice. The results will be predictable. More crime; more victims.

Barr’s remarks were met with sharp criticism by Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“This is absolutely despicable,” tweeted Ifill. “Barr [is] bringing the weight of his law enforcement bully pulpit against progressive prosecutors.”

“If by ‘anti-law enforcement,’ Barr means that a wave of new prosecutors are against the racist, classist, mass incarceration machine that has made America the world’s biggest jailer—we hope he’s right,” the ACLU wrote in a tweet. “The data is clear: Voters want a new kind of prosecutor.”

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In a piece last month about criminal justice professor-turned-St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley BellThe Guardian reported that “Bell is part of a movement.”

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Across the country, progressives have won office in district attorney and prosecutor races. They have claimed victories in major cities like Philadelphia and Chicago but also in places like Portsmouth, Virginia, where in February 2015, Stephanie Morales, 31, became the city’s first ever woman elected to the office of commonwealth’s attorney…

These candidates have bucked a decades-long “tough-on-crime” trend adopted by both major parties, in favor of fundamental reforms to criminal justice. They have been aided by armies of volunteers through traditional door-to-door campaigning, digital organizing, and—in some cases—funding from the billionaire George Soros and national progressive groups.

Although some self-styled progressive prosecutors have struggled to oust establishment candidates or failed to deliver on campaign promises after electoral victories, as activist Frank Leon Roberts wrote for the ACLU’s blog following Bell’s primary victory last year, “progressive prosecutors can set positive, proactive agendas that prioritize the people in their communities rather than prisons.”

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In addition to targeting prosecutors who want to address systemic injustices within the nation’s so-called justice system, Barr also vowed Monday that after Labor Day, the U.S. Justice Department “will be proposing legislation providing that in cases of mass murder, or in cases of murder of a law enforcement officer, there will be a timetable for judicial proceedings that will allow imposition of any death sentence without undue delay.”

Barr’s announcement came a week after Trump—speaking in the wake of mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas—directed the department “to propose legislation ensuring that those who commit hate crimes and mass murders face the death penalty and that this capital punishment be delivered quickly, decisively.”

Ernest Coverson, Amnesty International USA’s End Gun Violence campaign manager, said last week in response to Trump’s comments that “the death penalty is not a solution to the gun violence human rights crisis in this country.”

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“The death penalty is the ultimate cruel and inhuman punishment and should never be used to address public health,” added Coverson. “The first step in meaningful reform to address this crisis would be to pass legislation requiring background checks for the sale of every gun. There are too many guns, and insufficient laws today to keep track of them all.”


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