I became an attorney because I understood that there were disparities in the way communities of color were engaged by the criminal justice system. I ran for office because it became clear that the way to make systemic change was to have a seat at the table when laws were being crafted. I have believed in the scales of justice and the idea that the laws could be fairly written, administered, without influence of bias, privilege or corruption.
However, the reality for many in the criminal justice system is that justice is frequently impacted by the whim and view of who’s in charge. Whether it’s the arresting officer, the charging district attorney, the judge, legislators who write law, the U.S. Supreme Court, or even the President of the United States.
Justice, these days, feels more like a pendulum, swinging back and forth, depending on who is in power.
Take, for example, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ move last year to reverse the work of the Obama administration regarding the discretion given to prosecutors to decide when it was appropriate to charge crimes that trigger mandatory minimum prison sentences.
Under former U.S. Attorney Generals Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, federal prosecutors were encouraged to consider “the merits of each case, taking into account an individualized assessment of the defendant’s conduct and criminal history and the circumstances relating to the commission of the offense (including the impact of the crime on victims), the needs of the communities we serve, and federal resources and priorities.”
Sessions, on the other hand, has directed federal prosecutors to take the most aggressive approach possible against federal criminal defendants. It should surprise no one that drug offenders are in his crosshairs. But it’s not just Sessions, it’s Donald Trump’s unconventional approach to granting pardons or commuting sentences for a racist sheriff and a conservative commentator convicted of campaign finance violations. Trump is single-handedly usurping the formal pardon process and deciding on his own whims, who deserves a second chance.
Even in the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision of the majority of justices to weaken the Constitution’s protections against unlawful police stops, two years ago, should have set off an alarm. And at the local level, we have watched cringe-worthy videos of law enforcement officers around the country, using what citizens have certainly decried as excessive force or an outright abuse of power. Yet time and time again, they are told, move on, nothing to see here; this is acceptable behavior.
We must continue to question the application of the law and process to demand fairness. We can’t become too desensitized to the actions that at the pit of our stomach, we know are wrong. We must be willing to acknowledge that we have to elect individuals that reflect our sense of values and legislative priorities. We have to hold people accountable who don’t.