Deputy AG Discusses Obama’s Criminal Justice Legacy


One week after Donald Trump’s presidential victory threw into question the future of criminal justice reform, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates spoke at Fordham Law School about the Obama administration’s reform efforts over the past eight years, how states have taken a leading role on this issue, and the commonalities Americans across the political spectrum share.

“Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent, we all believe in the core values of justice, fairness, and the rule of law,” said Yates, an Obama nominee who began serving in her current capacity on May 13, 2015. “At the Justice Department, those are the values that guide our decisions every single day.”

Yates addressed “The Criminal Justice Reform Legacy of the Justice Department during the Obama Administration” as part of the 2016 Noreen E. McNamara Memorial Lecture, held on November 14. Yates’ speech came almost one month after Fordham Law School launched its Access to Justice Initiative, dedicated to closing the justice gap via teaching, direct service, and scholarship, research, and advocacy. Fordham Law School Dean Matthew Diller served as moderator of a Q&A with Yates following her speech.

Yates, a Georgia native, has served the Department of Justice for 27 years, prosecuting cases for two decades before becoming the first woman to lead the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Georgia. Today, she oversees the day-to-day operations of the Department of Justice’s four major law enforcement agencies and its 116,000 employees. Her time as a prosecutor, she explained, made her acutely aware of the need for wholesale change in the criminal justice system.

America composes five percent of the world’s population, yet it incarcerates 25 percent (2.2 million) of the world’s prisoners. The incarcerated population skyrocketed during the past three decades due to nonviolent drug arrests and mandatory minimum sentencing policies that Yates noted “cast too large a net.” As the jailed population grew, so too did the number of children with parents locked up. One in nine African-American children have a parent in the prison system, Yates reported.

Yates discussed at length how America’s overreliance on incarceration has not only failed to create safer communities but has also exacted a major toll on families, local, state and federal economies, and public confidence in the justice system. The Department of Justice, during the Obama administration, has tackled these issues via its investigation into and report on civil rights abuses in Ferguson, Missouri, its creation of the Office for Access to Justice, its commutation of sentences for 944 non-violent drug offenders via the Clemency Initiative, and its upcoming announcement of major reforms to the Bureau of Prisons, Yates said.

Still, there is one piece of the puzzle missing.

“To make lasting change, to make systemic change, we can’t do it with Band-Aids like a clemency process. To make lasting change, Congress needs to act,” Yates said, noting legislators in the House and Senate should pass existing bills calling for the repeal of mandatory federal drug sentencing. Criminal justice reform, unlike almost any other issue in 21st-century America, has received bipartisan support from elected officials, business leaders, civil rights organizations, and law enforcement professionals, though Yates cautioned that such broad support does not mean a federal bill will pass. Trump’s election has raised major questions about federal criminal justice reform, though Yates did not speculate on his future impact on this issue.

Meanwhile, states such as Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina, among others, have enacted aggressive and creative reforms, whether for economic or societal reasons, that are still just talk at the federal level, Yates said.

Imprisoning its citizenry costs America $80 billion annually, one-third of which goes to the Bureau of Prisons. Each dollar spent on prisoners could go toward investigating homegrown terrorists and hackers and/or provide job skill programs to help inmates prepare for re-entering society, Yates noted.

As for Yates, her next career move is yet to be determined. She intends to focus all her attention on her current job until President Obama’s final day in office.

“It’s been the privilege of a lifetime,” Yates said of her time as deputy attorney general, noting no matter what she does after January 20 it will not be as rewarding as her work with the Department of Justice.

Fordham Law School has hosted the McNamara Lecture since 1985. Established by the Charles E. Culpeper Foundation, the series honors one of Fordham Law’s most distinguished alumni, Noreen E. McNamara ’51, who worked principally on estate tax matters as a partner in the Connecticut firm of Lovejoy, Hefferman, Rimer, & Cuneo. The Culpeper Foundation also established the Noreen E. McNamara Memorial Endowed Scholarship given annually to a Fordham Law student.


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