Legal Speaks Home Debbie Hines Bio Blog TV Clips Practice Areas Res Ipsa Loquitur Links Contact
Blog Home

Posts Tagged ‘attorney general’

What the New DOJ Drug Policy Means for Everyone

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Jeff Sessions -Photo/Alex Brandon

Jeff Sessions -Photo/Alex Brandon

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he has rescinded the prior Department of Justice policies of Attorney General Eric Holder on sentencing and charging in drug cases. Under Attorney Generals Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, both reversed prior drug policies which saw many minorities and others going to prison for decades for low level, non-violent drug involvement due to mandatory minimum sentences. Under Attorney General Holder, the Department of Justice concentrated more efforts and resources on drug defendants who were violent and/or had substantial involvement with drug trafficking. Sessions, known as the law and order Attorney General, has saw fit to turn back the progress seen in the Eric Holder era.

Sessions announced last week that he intends for all U. S. attorneys to charge the most serious crimes and seek the highest penalties for all drug defendants in federal courts. Mandatory minimums and lengthy sentences began in the 1980’s to combat the crack cocaine epidemic. After 30 years since the original law and order mandatory minimums of the Regan era sought to increase drug sentences, there is still an epidemic of drugs—known currently as the opioid epidemic. In the prior mandatory minimum era, there were persons with very low drug involvement who spent decades in jail for having very small amounts of drugs in their possession and with no prior criminal convictions, due to mandatory maximum minimums.

Sessions declared the need for a change in policy due to an increase in crime; in fact, crime has been decreasing and is at its lowest in many years. And while many national prosecutors praise Sessions and the new policy, others who seek criminal justice reform abhor the new policy, as it will simply fill up jails. And maybe that’s exactly what Sessions wants to do. Private prisons are a high priority for those who earn big bucks for building and maintaining private prisons.

What is needed today to curtail drug use and abuse is the same thing that was needed during the 1980’s. Drug treatment and prevention is a key to decreasing the drug problem in the U.S. Opponents to the increased drug sentences and in favor of overall criminal justice reform include progressives and conservatives alike. The Charles Koch Institute found that the majority of Trump voters even contend that criminal justice reform is important with its findings:

“A poll last month by the conservative Charles Koch Institute found that 81 percent of Trump voters think criminal justice reform is “very important,” and 63 percent said judges should have the freedom to assign forms of punishments other than prison, which is the opposite of what mandatory-minimum sentences require.”

It will be interesting to note if the new policy will target mainly minorities, as in the past or include individuals across the country involved in the “new” opioid drug epidemic. There is a provision in the new drug policy that will allow for prosecutors to use their judgment. As a former prosecutor, I know that discretion is rarely allowed when a policy calls for the highest sentences and charges.

I suspect that as in the past, the majority of those getting arrested, charged and sent to prison will be people of color. Studies have found that minorities and whites use drugs at or about the same rate. Yet, prisons overflow with people of color. African Americans are disproportionately targeted and sent to prison for lengthy jail sentences in the mandatory-minimum era. That was one of the underlying reasons why Attorney General Eric Holder sought to change the policies.

The new war on drugs, a la Sessions style, should have everyone concerned. And this time around unlike the 1980’s Regan era, everyone who knows someone with a drug problem should have reason for concern. The new policy will likely affect John and Jamal.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor. She often appears on MSNBC, PBS, CBS News, Al Jazeera and Fox 5 DC.

The Trump Era and Justice for People of Color

Monday, December 5th, 2016

President Elect Donald Trump has nominated Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as his pick for Attorney General of the U.S. Sessions is a lightning bolt for anything related to civil rights and justice for people of color. Much of the progress seen in the Eric Holder era and now Loretta Lynch era may likely soon be erased with a much darker side taking its place. The prior history of Sessions speaking out in support of the Klu Klux Klan (“KKK”) in the past years, is troubling for civil rights advancement.

Some of the areas at risk are police consent decrees, federal police lawsuits for excessive force and death of unarmed individuals, immigration legislation deferring deportation of “Dreamers”, reduction of mandatory minimums, Voting Rights legislation, federal lawsuits opposing voter disenfranchisement and the Civil rights Division, itself. Sessions favors increasing the prison population. Former Attorney General Eric Holder favored decreasing the prison population by reducing non-violent drug sentences and reducing mandatory minimums. Sessions opposes reducing sentences, even if non-violent. Sessions is in favor of increased surveillance without the need for a search warrant. Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was notoriously known for wiring taping civil rights activists, Martin Luther King and anyone that deemed to speak out in favor of civil rights. And Donald Trump has previously stated he favors stop and frisk laws which were previously held unconstitutional.

Justice is at risk in the Trump era.

On the Bill Press show on December 1, I elaborate on the ways a Trump era Department of Justice may be a major setback for justice and civil rights for people of color.

Listen and Watch Here:

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor. She often appears on MSNBC, PBS, CBS, Al Jazeera, BET and Fox 5 DC.

AG Eric Holder Announces Strides in Sentencing

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Eric_Holder_official_portraitOn Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the Press Club in D.C. and gave what may be one of his last speeches before stepping down. He announced that there have been quantitative strides in his actions taken to reform criminal sentencing in America. Holder realized very early on that the criminal disparities in sentencing in drug cases resulted in African Americans being sentenced to higher sentences and to mandatory minimums. Attorney General Holder stated, “For years prior to this administration, federal prosecutors were not only encouraged – but required – to always seek the most severe prison sentence possible for all drug cases, no matter the relative risk they posed to public safety. I have made a break from that philosophy.” Data compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that the efforts made by Holder have helped to dramatically reduce mandatory minimums and to reserve higher and harsher sentencing to more serious offenders. Attorney General Holder’s approach was to reserve the more severe sentences to those offenders that deserved it, instead of indiscriminately applying harsh sentences to every drug defendant coming before a federal court. The change in policies affects the nonviolent drug cases and allows the federal prosecutors to use discretion in these cases.

Attorney General Holder’s approach as Attorney General was to make America less dependent or reliant on incarceration. He noted in his speech the effect of the previous approach to criminal justice saying “After all, although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of its prisoners. While the entire U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent over the same period.” And most studies have shown that this increased incarceration has not improved safety to our communities. But studies have shown that African American men and Hispanic men make up almost 50% of the U.S. prison population while black men make up 6% of the U.S. population. The Sentencing Commission confirms that numbers show that federal prosecutors sought mandatory minimum penalties at a lower rate in 2014 than in any other year on record.

Attorney General was responsible for having President Obama to sign the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the inappropriate and unjust 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. And although the disparate gap was reduced to approximately 18-1, it is a vast improvement. African Americans are more likely to use crack cocaine over white Americans, while white Americans more likely use powder cocaine. Yet, crack cocaine uses powder cocaine as a base. There should not be any distinction in sentencing between the two.

Perhaps, the effects of Holder’s change in U.S. attitudes to incarceration can be seen in places like Kentucky, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania – where governors and legislatures of both parties have provided a model for others to emulate by directing funds away from prison construction and towards programs designed to reduce recidivism. Building new prisons in communities is not the answer to the issues of criminal justice.

Overall, in Fiscal Year 2014, the U.S saw its first reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years. And perhaps, more importantly, the U.S, under Holder and the Obama administration has achieved side-by-side reductions in both crime and incarceration in more than 40 years. Holder stated that improvements and changes to the criminal justice system under his leadership are just a beginning for laying a foundation for a new era in American justice.  If confirmed by the Senate,  hopefully, US Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch will continue to work on and improve upon what Attorney General Eric Holder has successfully started under the Obama Administration.

First DC Attorney General Race Heats Up

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014
Debbie Hines, Author

Debbie Hines, Author

Having written a letter commentary to the Washington Post editorial board on October 21, 2010 on why the DC Attorney General should be elected, I am elated to see that day has finally arrived with five viable and diverse candidates seeking the office of Attorney General for the District of Columbia. The 5 candidates seeking the office are attorneys Lorie Masters, Karl Racine, Edward “Smitty” Smith, Lateefah Williams and Paul Zukerberg. I was finally able to see all 5 together in a forum on Tuesday, October 21 hosted by the Women’s Bar Association  and moderated by Zoe Tillman, reporter for the National Law Journal/Legal Times.

At the outset, I must say there are many similarities between the candidates on some of the issues. And in all honesty, I wish I could clone them into one candidate placing their best qualities in one person. When asked what would be their number one priority for the office of Attorney General, they all gave practically the same answer. Each candidate wanted to build integrity, have honest transparency and end corruption.

Lorie Masters is a former president of the Women’s Bar Association and was a prior managing partner at her law firm. Masters like Karl Racine comes from a large corporate law firm background. Paul Zukerberg is a solo practitioner who is responsible for fighting the fight to ensure that the election for Attorney General is being held in November, 2014 and not some later date. After the DC residents voted to hold elections for the office, the DC City council sought to table the elections for a while. And Mr. Zukerberg fought the District of Columbia government in court and won. As an attorney, he shows he is able to take on the City Council and win. However, based on his background as a solo practitioner for decades, I was concerned about his ability to actually lead an office of the magnitude of the DC Attorney General office although I truly admire his true grit and guts. Lateefah Williams is the most grass roots activist among the five candidates, citing her desire to host forums in the city and advocate for the most vulnerable in the city.

In narrowing down the choices, two candidates impressed me that they would be more able to head the DC Attorney General’s office. Those two candidates are Edward “Smitty” Smith and Karl Racine. I admire that Edward Smith or “Smitty” as he says he likes to be called, came from Anacostia, one of the worst neighborhoods in the District of Columbia, earned a degree from Harvard Law School and is a true public servant by his professional background. At age 34, he has a most impressive background. Smith, like Mr. Racine, has managed teams of employees. I believe that he would understand the challenges facing juveniles in the DC juvenile justice system, reform the juvenile justice system and advocate for consumers. His public servant background will fit well with the DC Attorney General’s office.

Mr. Racine has the experience of public service like Mr. Smith, having served as a former Assistant Public Defender. He was the one candidate who gave very specifics answers to the question on who he has spoken to at the DC Attorney General’s office to get a sense of the present office. And in understanding the limits of the DC Attorney General’s budget, he seemed willing to build upon law school clinics to assist in some areas of the office. Mr. Racine says that he is the only candidate who will be best able to hit the ground running if he is elected. More importantly, he is the one who has clearly demonstrated that he has managed hundreds of lawyers and employees for 6 years with a large budget as the managing partner at his law firm, Venable. The Attorney General’s office has almost 600 employees.

While all of the 5 candidates make good lawyers, Mr. Racine has demonstrated that he could actually run an office with hundreds of lawyers and employees and more amply understand their needs. It will take more than being able to read a budget to run an office of the size of the Attorney General’s office. Emphasizing that he would ensure adequate training for the attorneys shows he understands an aspect of the morale issue at the Attorney General’s office and he is willing to give support to the lawyers. Mr. Racine’s qualifications slightly nudge out Mr. Smith. In picking one candidate for DC Attorney General, I would have to say that person would be Karl Racine. The election is November 4. Early voting has already started.