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Cory Booker presses William Barr on racism and criminal justice

Barr has previously said that white and black offenders are treated the same by the criminal justice system.

Senate Lawmakers Speak To Media After Their Weekly Policy Luncheons.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) in December.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a likely Democratic contender for the 2020 presidential nomination, pushed back on attorney general nominee William Barr’s statements about race and the criminal justice system at a Senate hearing Tuesday.

Barr has argued in the past that “there’s no statistical evidence of racism in the criminal justice system,” according to comments cited by Booker. The senator pressed Barr on the point, detailing evidence of exactly such a bias.

Barr responded by noting that there’s “no doubt” there’s “racism in the system,” while adding that he found that it’s “working” overall.

As Vox’s German Lopez writes, Barr was an architect of many policies that have since led to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans. The exchange revealed that the attorney general nominee sees racism as a peripheral issue within the criminal justice system rather than Booker’s view of it as a problem that’s entrenched in the system itself.

Booker highlighted that Barr has pushed for hardline criminal justice policies in the past, including signing off on a report making the “Case for More Incarceration,” although he now claims to back reforms that would slightly reduce incarceration rates.

Barr has questioned racial disparities in the criminal justice system in the past. Booker called him out.

As Booker notes, Barr has previously suggested that black and white Americans charged with the same offense are treated the same way by the criminal justice system, a claim countless studies have simply shown to be untrue. Black offenders are more likely to receive longer sentences, more likely to receive higher bail, and more likely to have their probation revoked, according to a range of different analyses.

Booker repeatedly pointed out this discrepancy, and ultimately pressed Barr to commit to a study on these disparities, noting that he’s personally experienced biased treatment by the justice system, even as Barr touted the gains he made in the 1990s. “I was a young black guy in 1990s,” said Booker. “I was a 20-something-year-old and experienced a dramatically different justice system in the treatment I received.”

At the end of their back-and-forth, Barr maintained that higher incarceration rates led to a reduction in crime that’s benefitted black Americans, but said that heavy drug penalties have “harmed the black community.”

Read their exchange, below:

Booker: You stated that if ‘a black and a white’ — this is quoting you directly — ‘are charged with the same offense, generally they’ll get the same treatment in the system and ultimately the same penalty.’ And I quote you again, ‘There’s no statistical evidence of racism in the criminal justice system.’ Do you still believe that?

Barr: I think that’s taken out of a broader quote, which is the whole criminal justice system involves both federal but also state and local justice systems. I said there’s no doubt there are places where there’s racism still in the system. But I said overall, I thought, that as a system, it’s working.

Booker: So can I press you on that? Overall the system treats blacks and whites fairly. From my own experience — I’ve lived in affluent communities. There are certain drug laws applied there than the inner city community in which I live.

But let’s not talk stats or personal experiences. ... I have a whole bunch of reports which I’ll enter into the record from nonpartisan, bipartisan groups, even conservative leaders talking about the rife nature of racial bias within the system.

For example, the federal government’s own data, the US Sentencing Commission’s research shows that federal prosecutors are more likely to charge blacks with offenses that carry harsh mandatory minimum sentences than similarly situated for whites.

The federal government’s own data shows that black defendants were subject to three-strike sentencing enhancements at a statistically significant higher rate, which added an average [of] over 10 years to their sentences. ... For example, I don’t know if you’re aware or not of the Brookings study that found blacks are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for selling drugs despite the fact that whites are actually more likely to sell drugs in the United States of America.

And blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession of drugs when there is no difference racially in America for the usage and possession of drugs in the United States. Are you familiar with the Brookings study?

Barr: No, I’m not.

Booker: Okay. So just to follow up, will you commit to commissioning a study examining racial disparities and disparate impacts of the policies that you talked about and led to mass incarceration, the policies you defended when you criticized the bipartisan 2015 sentencing reform legislation. Will you commit to at least, as the most important law enforcement officer in the land, to studying those well-documented racial disparities and the impacts?

Barr: Of course I’ll commit to studying that. I’ll have the Bureau of Justice Statistics pull together everything they have. If there’s something lacking, I’ll get that. I’m interested in the state experience. But when I looked at that — I think 1992 was a different time, senator. The crime rate had quintupled over the proceeding 30 years and peaked in 1992. And it’s been coming down since 1990.

Booker: And sir, I just want to tell you, I was a young black guy in 1990s. I was a 20-something-year-old and experienced a dramatically different justice system in the treatment I received.

The data of racial disparities and what it’s done — because you literally said this about black communities. I know your heart was in the right place. You said, hey, I want to help black communities. The benefits of incarceration would be enjoyed disproportionately by black Americans living in inner cities. You also said a failure to incarcerate hurts black Americans most. I just want to ask you a yes or no question because I have seconds left.

Do you believe now 30, 40 years of mass incarceration targeted disproportionately towards African-Americans, harsher sentences, disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system? ... Do you think, just yes or no that, this system of mass incarceration has disproportionately benefitted African-American communities?

Barr: I think the reduction in crime has since 1992, but I think that the heavy drug penalties, especially on crack and other things, have harmed the black community, the incarceration rates.

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