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41 prosecutors blast Attorney General Barr for ‘dangerous and failed’ approach to criminal justice

(Attorney General William P. Barr told ABC News that President Trump's attacks on the Justice Department had made it “impossible for me to do my job” and asserted that “I'm not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody.” (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

Forty-one elected prosecutors in a joint statement condemned Attorney General William P. Barr for his recent rhetoric that attacked progressive policies, arguing that his “dangerous and failed” approach to criminal justice disproportionately punished poor people and racial minorities while diverting resources away from more serious crimes.

“Sadly, we are perceived as a threat by some who are wedded to the status quo or, even worse, failed policies of past decades,” the 41 state, county and city prosecutors wrote. “Critics such as Attorney General William P. Barr seek to bring us back to a time when crime was high, success was measured by how harsh the punishment was, and a fear-driven narrative prevailed.”

In their statement, the signatories warned against returning to a “‘tough on crime’ era” that ignored facts and encouraged mass incarceration. Instead, they argued, evidence shows that a data-based approach is not only more effective, but also strengthens community trust.

“We know policies based on fear don’t work; they simply deepen divides and promote a false narrative,” the letter read. “For too long communities were told that locking up poor people for crimes like shoplifting and drug possession would make them safer, when time and time again all it resulted in was the fracturing of families, intergenerational cycles of incarceration, a destabilization of communities and a growing distrust of law enforcement.”

Their letter comes after Barr spoke Monday at the National Sheriffs’ Association winter conference and denounced “social justice reformers” whose policies, he said, are “pushing a number of America’s cities back toward a more dangerous past.”

He specifically called out progressive district attorneys in Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Chicago — cities he said have “all suffered historic levels of homicide and other violent crime.” He argued that their policies go against a traditional criminal justice system that imposes increasingly-severe punishments based on criminal history, rather than “catch-and-release" and “revolving-door policies” that undermine policing by placing offenders back into communities.

“These DAs think they are helping people, but they end up hurting them,” Barr told those at the conference. ” By allowing young lawbreakers entirely off the hook the first time — or the second time or even the third time — these DAs are potentially placing them on a conveyor to further and heightened criminality.”

These prosecutors won office vowing to fight the system. Now, the system is fighting back.

Barr’s criticism comes as newly-elected progressive prosecutors have sought to reform a criminal justice system they argue is outdated. They’ve run and been elected on platforms that include abandoning cash bail and not pursuing marijuana cases, policies they say disproportionately punishes and over-incarcerates minorities and people in poverty.

During his first year as President Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr has at times used the same language as Trump on the Russia probe and impeachment. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

But powerful figures — among them police union leaders, lawmakers and Trump administration officials such as Barr — have argued that these prosecutors are misusing their roles to decline charges, which in turn leads to more crime. In Philadelphia, for example, where the district attorney ordered prosecutors to pursue less severe sentences and not impose charges for certain offenses, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain accused him of causing a “public safety crisis.”

Monday was not the first time Barr has detailed his frustration with progressive prosecutors. In an August speech to the Fraternal Order of Police, he lamented “anti-law enforcement DAs” who “spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook and refusing to enforce the law.”

“Some are refusing to prosecute various theft cases or drug cases, even where the suspect is involved in distribution. And when they do deign to charge a criminal suspect, they are frequently seeking sentences that are pathetically lenient,” Barr said last year. “So these cities are headed back to the days of revolving door justice. The results will be predictable. More crime; more victims."

The district attorneys who signed Thursday’s letter disagree, noting that in Chicago — where Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has dismissed thousands of felonies that would have previously been pursued — homicides and shootings have decreased for three consecutive years.

“My fellow reform-minded prosecutors and I don’t resort to fear, we deal in facts,” John Choi, chief prosecutor in Ramsey County, Minn., said in a statement. “For too long, we’ve seen individuals locked up for offenses that amount to the criminalization of drug use, mental illness and simply being poor. This has not made us any safer, but has instead, time and time again, resulted in the fracturing of families, intergenerational cycles of incarceration, a destabilization of communities and a growing distrust of law enforcement."

The prosecutors’ statement adds to a chorus of criticism against Barr in recent days over the sentencing of President Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone. The four career prosecutors handling Stone’s case withdrew Tuesday after Justice Department officials overruled their sentencing recommendation for Stone, which Trump had blasted as too harsh.

But Barr pushed back against Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department Thursday, saying, “I’m not going to be bullied by anybody.” The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky reported that Barr’s comments could jeopardize his tenure as the nation’s top law enforcement official.

Mark Berman contributed to this report.

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