WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr staunchly defended the work of law enforcement Monday — promising to push for new legislation to swiftly carry out the death penalty for suspects who commit mass shootings or kill police officers, while also taking aim at prosecutors who “style themselves as ‘social justice’ reformers.”
Barr, who had a tough-on-crime approach in his previous stint as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer in the early 1990s, lauded efforts to keep chronic offenders behind bars with long sentences. In his speech to the Fraternal Order of Police conference in New Orleans, he said that helped seriously cut down violent crime. He also said the government must have “zero tolerance” for suspects who resist the police and denounced protesters who threw water on New York City police a few weeks ago as “prancing punks.”
That hard-line stance, however, puts Barr at odds with today’s criminal justice reformers. While the tough-on-crime thinking was common among law enforcement officials in the early 1990s — as the national violent crime rate peaked — many in the criminal justice field now favor rehabilitation instead of incarceration.
President Donald Trump has pushed efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system, often touting bipartisan legislation he signed last year that gives judges more discretion in sentencing and eases mandatory minimum sentences. At the same time, the president has been an ardent defender of police — once telling officers in a speech they shouldn’t “be too nice” to suspects they arrest — and has a long history of advocating for the death penalty. Those positions tend to popular with the president’s conservative political base.
In his speech, Barr praised federal prosecutors who have brought more cases against violent criminals and drug dealers in an effort to curb the opioid epidemic. But he added that more needs to be done, saying that most of the illegal drugs being trafficked into the U.S. are being brought in by Mexican drug organizations and other transnational gangs.
“Obviously, the head of the snake is outside the United States,” he said. “We must destroy these cartels.”
Barr took a hard swing at prosecutors who don’t embrace the same tough-on-crime stance. He said appointing such progressive district attorneys is “demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety” because they “spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.”
Across the U.S., some longtime prosecutors have been met by more reform-minded challengers, some of whom have vowed not to prosecute lower-level offenses, such as drug possession and other misdemeanors.
“So these cities are headed back to the days of revolving door justice,” Barr said. “The results will be predictable. More crime; more victims.”
Barr promised that the Justice Department would propose legislation to expedite criminal cases against suspects charged in mass shootings and the killings of law enforcement officers, so they could face quick punishment, including the death penalty.
“Punishment must be swift and certain,” Barr said.
He also said there should be more of an appreciation for the work of law enforcement officers.
“The ‘thin blue line’ is getting thinner,” he added.