Before President Trump picked him to be part of a federal commission that sets policy on how to punish criminals, William Otis spent years staunchly advocating harsher penalties and a larger prison population.
In several public testimonies and years of published commentary, Otis decried a criminal justice system that he says has favored criminals over victims. He hailed the tough-on-crime approach of the Reagan and Bush administrations — one that Trump, through his attorney general, is resurrecting. “Increased use of incarceration and reining in naive judges,” he once told NPR, “has worked” to curtail crime.
Otis’s appointment, which the White House announced Thursday, is another sign that the Trump administration is restoring the 1980s and 1990s war on drugs that incarcerated many minority defendants and overcrowded the country’s prisons. Last May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe penalties possible, including mandatory minimum sentences — a move that Otis praised.
“It was right then and it’s right now,” Otis wrote on a popular legal blog. “It amounts to telling prosecutors to charge what the defendant actually did. This is so obviously correct — aligning the allegations with the facts — that I have a hard time seeing any serious objection to it.”
Otis’s nomination was met with criticism from advocacy groups. In a statement Thursday, Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, called Otis’s views “outdated.”
“This is not a person who will be guided by evidence and data. The Senate should reject this nomination,” Ring said.
In a short email to The Washington Post, Otis said he is honored “to have been selected for this important position by the President” and declined to comment further. The White House and Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Otis, a former federal prosecutor who’s now an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University, is perhaps also best known in the legal community for his commentaries on the Crime and Consequences blog, which describes itself as the voice that represents the “perspective of victims of crime and law-abiding public.”
Some of his writings are racially tinged. One example is a 2013 post titled “The PC Attempt to Intimidate Judges.” Otis defended a judge who was criticized for saying that minorities are more violent than white people.
“Thus, when Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Jones said at a University of Pennsylvania Law School talk that blacks and Hispanics are more violent than whites, a consortium of civil rights organizations filed a complaint,” Otis wrote. “The complaint calls for stern discipline on the grounds that the remarks were ‘discriminatory and biased.’ ”
He added, “So far as I have been able to discover, it makes no mention of the fact that they’re true.”
Scroll down to the comments section of that post, and you’ll find that Otis talked about Asians, too: “Orientals have less incidence of crime than whites. … The reason Orientals stay out of jail more than either whites or blacks is that family, life, work, education and tradition are honored more in Oriental culture than in others. Values, not race or skin color, influence choices.”
In some of his posts, Otis also sarcastically referred to offenders as “Mr. Nicey.”
“Mr. Nicey might consider quitting the smack business and getting a normal job like everybody else,” he wrote in a post praising Sessions’s directive to federal prosecutors.
In a May 2014 post about a bill that would have reduced the sentences of some drug and low-level offenders, Otis wrote, “Last I looked, when you needle yourself with too much heroin, you’re still dead; when a thug belts you to grab your purse, you still have a knot on your head and no purse; and when Mr. Nicey rapes your eight year old, you still have a defiled little girl to try to help.”
It was that term — “low-level offenders” — that Otis has also criticized.
“ ‘Low-level offenders’ seems to be an undefined phrase. You don’t know exactly what ‘low-level’ means,” he said on NPR when asked last year about overcrowding prisons with people convicted of low-level drug crimes. “Often it’s used to mean a courier in a drug business. What people don’t realize as much as they should is that a courier in the drug business is just as essential as a car is in a pizza-delivery business. The business — unless you can deliver your inventory, the business is going to fall apart. And just saying that they’re low-level is too general and too undefined to make for good criminal justice policy.”
Otis is one of four people Trump nominated Thursday. If confirmed by the Senate, he will be a commissioner of the U.S. Sentencing Commission — the same administrative body that, years earlier, he wanted abolished.
The sentencing commission, Otis said, became a toothless agency after the Supreme Court turned a mandatory sentencing regime into an advisory one. The high court’s 2005 ruling on United States v. Booker gave judges wider discretion and allowed them to impose sentences that are outside what the commission’s sentencing guidelines recommend. According to the Justice Department, the Booker decision resulted in decreased sentences for defendants who have the most serious criminal records.
In an October 2011 House judiciary testimony, Otis said the ruling allowed judges to tip the scales of justice heavily in favor of criminals.
“No normal person would recognize that state of affairs as simply the exercise of supposedly neutral ‘judicial discretion.’ … Instead, it would be recognized for what it is — a partisan result,” Otis said. “When one side — the criminal — is consistently wiping out the other, one might suspect that the umpire is playing favorites.”
The commission, Otis said, turned from “the 900-pound gorilla of sentencing law” that wrote binding rules to an “overfed lemur” that has far outlasted its purpose.
Otis served as a special counsel to President George H.W. Bush. He was also a counselor for the Drug Enforcement Administration under George W. Bush.