Reporters, law enforcement experts, students, and one lone protester filled New York University School of Law’s Tishman Auditorium Tuesday afternoon to listen to Eric Holder talk about reducing crime and the incarcerated population. The Attorney General was the keynote speaker at an all-day conference held by the law school’s Brennan Center for Justice on “Shifting Law Enforcement Goals to Reduce Mass Incarceration,” to commemorate the center’s release of a new report on that very subject. In the audience, the protester waved a sign that read, “NYU: Stop forcing applicants to disclose criminal history.”
“Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners,” Holder said, repeating a statistic that was mentioned during both of the panel discussions that took place ahead of his speech.
The costs of these mass incarcerations and “long and unnecessary prison terms,” he said, “have not played a significant role in increasing public safety.”
While insisting that the U.S. “will never stop being vigilant against crime,” Holder noted that “for far too long our system has perpetuated a cycle of criminality,” and said his Department of Justice is dedicated to supporting community-integrated law enforcement programs in states where significant drops in crime have coincided with significant reductions in prison populations.
“Over the past year, the federal prison population has decreased by 4,800,” he said. “My hope is that we are witnessing the start of a trend that will always accelerate. Clearly criminal justice reform is an idea whose time has come.”
“Gone are the days when prosecutors should rely on mandatory minimum sentences,” Holder said, echoing the theme of the conference. “It’s time to shift away from old metrics and embrace a more contemporary and more comprehensive view of what constitutes success.”
Prior to Holder’s speech, U.S. Attorneys, state attorneys general, police chiefs, budget experts and a former head of the NRA participated in panel discussions on changing priorities for federal prosecutors and for broader law enforcement. Like both of the speakers before him, Holder’s talk eventually turned to Ferguson, Missouri—where longstanding tensions between the African American community and law enforcement finally boiled over this summer with the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer.
Holder noted that as a former U.S. Attorney, and the brother of a long-serving police officer, he will always have the utmost respect and support for the men and women in law enforcement. But as an African American man, “who has been stopped and searched by police in situations where such action was not warranted, I also carry with me the mistrust that some citizens harbor for those who wear the badge.”
Part of policing justly and fairly in the 21st Century, Holder concluded, is “working to ensure that everyone who comes in contact with the police is treated fairly.”