Premal Dharia is founder and director of the Defender Impact Initiative and a former public defender, including at the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Baltimore. C. Justin Brown is a criminal defense attorney who practices in Baltimore.

The onset of a new administration means plenty of attention on high-profile Cabinet appointments. But beyond the Beltway, nominations that take place with far less scrutiny may have a bigger impact on the everyday lives of Marylanders.

The nomination of federal judges and U.S. attorneys who would serve exclusively in Maryland presents a unique opportunity for Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (both D-Md.). They must ensure that those selected by the White House to serve their state are committed to working toward meaningful change in our criminal legal system. Last summer, the public rose to demand a reckoning with structural racism and to stand against police brutality. That sentiment was reflected in the election results of this past year.

Cardin and Van Hollen will have an important say in what the future holds for Maryland’s federal judges and prosecutors because of the “blue slip” process. Under this process, any president nominating a judge or U.S. attorney generally gains the approval of the two home-state senators where the nominee will serve. Indeed, this process has been aggressively used by Republicans to block Democratic nominees and may have outgrown its utility in our partisan system. To the extent that it continues, it’s a platform for Maryland’s senators to further push for a top federal prosecutor and judges who have a forward-thinking vision for our criminal system.

There are few places where the scars of police misconduct and institutional racism run more deeply than Maryland. For too long, Black and Brown people in Maryland have felt the firm and unfair knee of the criminal system on their necks. The Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office’s record in this regard has been alarming: In 2019, 777 people were sentenced in federal court in Maryland. Of those people, 519 were Black and 117 were identified as Hispanic. That’s 66.7 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Indeed, Black people and people who identify as Hispanic make up 42 percent of Maryland’s population but represented more than 83 percent of people sentenced in Maryland’s federal court in 2019.

Cardin and Van Hollen are all too aware of the need for change. Last year, they sponsored sweeping legislation to overhaul law enforcement after the killing of George Floyd. And as the coronavirus threatened the lives of individuals in prison, both sent a letter to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) urging him to reduce the prison population in the state. These are important first steps. But the time is ripe to directly attack the structural racism that undergirds Maryland’s shameful legacy by looking to federal appointments.

Now is not the time for uncritical greenlighting. There is increasing acknowledgment of the need for diversity in the Justice Department and on the bench — of all kinds, including professional. President Biden’s White House counsel has asked Democratic senators to emphasize nominees who are demographically and professionally diverse. Fortunately, Maryland is well-equipped to answer this call, drawing from a bar populated by a wealth of experienced criminal defense attorneys — and reform-minded local prosecutors — who are committed to progress and would represent a step in the right direction for the federal bench and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Other districts are pursuing similar changes; for example, reform-minded District Attorney Rachael Rollins was recently announced as a potential nominee for U.S. attorney in Massachusetts.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) mission to seat federal judges during the Trump era has been well-documented. In four years, McConnell confirmed the appointment of one-fourth of federal judges and one-third of Supreme Court justices, cementing a conservative judiciary that will be hard for Biden to undo. In the same vein, federal prosecutors — known as U.S. attorneys — pursued an aggressive agenda backed by attorneys general Jeff Sessions and William P. Barr. They often used their power to advance punishment, rather than health and safety, by turning a blind eye to police brutality and misconduct, pursuing anti-immigrant measures and continuing the ineffective “war on drugs,” which has devastated communities of color throughout the nation.

There’s a common misperception that federal prosecutions — as opposed to state prosecutions, which are pursued by locally elected leaders — revolve around political corruption and other special cases. Almost one-third of the federal prosecutions in Maryland in 2019 were drug-related. And many state prosecutions are picked up and pursued by the federal government when the alleged conduct also violates parallel federal laws, even though the cases could remain under local prosecution. This discretionary federal prosecution further entrenches the racial disparities and misconduct that pervade local policing. When the federal prison population across the country continued to drop, the number of people sent to prison by federal prosecutors and judges in Maryland was as high in 2019 as it was in 2015.

The federal government plays a key role in local police oversight, too. The next appointments to the federal bench in Maryland could oversee challenges to police conduct through civil rights actions. And, although some prosecutors are seeking to hold police accountable, many are not; federal prosecutors must be willing to step in and take on cases involving misconduct and civil rights violations.

Maryland is crying out for real change in policing and the criminal system, and the Biden administration must deliver. Maryland’s senators can demonstrate their commitment to undoing the racist, punitive approach of the past by using their leverage during the nomination process for judges and prosecutors. They must seize the opportunity.

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