Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr

U.S. Attorney General William Barr spoke during a summit at the Justice Department July 15, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Barr Blasted by Rights Advocates for 'Absolutely Despicable' Speech Slamming 'Anti-Law Enforcement DAs'

The U.S. attorney general also vowed to deliver a bill, requested by the president, to expedite certain death sentences

Jessica Corbett

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."

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."

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

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."

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."

"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."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

With Amazon Accused of Cheating, NLRB Official Says Workers Should Get Another Union Vote

"Amazon cheated, they got caught, and they are being held accountable," said the head of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

Jake Johnson ·

Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer Told 'Stop Playing the Blame Game' and Extend Eviction Moratorium

"Who are the adults in the room?" asked the Sunrise Movement's advocacy director. "Do whatever it takes to extend the eviction moratorium and end this eviction emergency."

Jessica Corbett ·

Report Outlines 'Crucial' Need for Biden Administration to Aid Climate Refugees

"Ready solutions are available to address root causes and displacement that are centered in human rights and humanitarian protection."

Brett Wilkins ·

Hundreds Arrested in DC Demanding Voting Rights, End to Poverty, and Death of Filibuster

Clergy and low-wage workers with the Poor People's Campaign are also calling on Congress to treat the nation's immigrants with respect.

Jessica Corbett ·

'He Should Resign': Women's Rights Group Denounces Violent Misogyny of Kevin McCarthy

"With Kevin McCarthy voting against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, it is clear that his comments are reflective of his deeply held beliefs about how women should be treated."

Brett Wilkins ·