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.

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