While trends in American criminal justice have come and gone over the last century, what has remained tiresomely — and implacably — consistent has been the role of race as a factor in decision-making by jurists, juries and prosecutors alike. Seemingly unrelated events over the last few weeks suggest that a serious pendulum swing is under way in how we treat offenders. This time, it’s possible that sincere efforts to confront those intractable, often unconscious but deeply embarrassing biases will be at the heart of the overhaul.
With an urgency and conviction that was barely discernible during his first term, Eric Holder is leading the charge at the national level, using the attorney general’s bully pulpit more effectively than anyone in that office since Robert Kennedy. A few weeks ago, Holder condemned prisoner disfranchisement, linking the laws to post-Reconstruction-era practices and all but suggesting that not only the well-documented effect but also the very purpose of voter exclusion laws today is to suppress/reduce the black vote. Noting that black male offenders’ sentences are nearly 20 percent longer than white men’s for similar offenses, he promised the American Bar Association that the federal government is determined to redress these “shameful” disparities.