In a demonstration of just how wide-ranging and complex the duties of US Attorney General Eric Holder are, during two major speeches at NYU Law only six days apart, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer discussed both the systemic criminal justice problems that contributed to upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri and white-collar crime on Wall Street.

Holder delivered the keynote at the daylong conference “Shifting Law Enforcement Goals to Reduce Mass Incarceration” on September 23 organized by the Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. The attorney general signaled his commitment to those goals in August 2013 with the launch of the Justice Department’s Smart Crime initiative aimed at reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders.

“For far too long,” said Holder, “under well-intentioned policies designed to be ‘tough’ on criminals, our system has perpetuated a destructive cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration that has trapped countless people and weakened entire communities—particularly communities of color.”

The idea that higher levels of incarceration and draconian sentencing had significantly improved public safety or reduced crime was not borne out by statistics, he added, referencing a recent 18-year study showing that those states with reduced prison populations also saw the most significant drops in crime, whereas West Virginia, the state with the greatest increase in incarceration, experienced a rise in crime.

With the decline of harsh sentences for nonviolent crimes, Holder said, came the need for new ways of defining success: “This means developing a new system of assessment—because… what gets measured is what gets funded, and what gets funded is what gets done.” A new report released by the Brennan Center in conjunction with the conference, Holder noted, tackled just those issues.

Holder directly addressed the wider repercussions of disproportionately harsh law enforcement. “As we saw all too clearly last month—as the eyes of the nation turned to events in Ferguson, Missouri—whenever discord, mistrust, and roiling tensions fester just under the surface, interactions between law enforcement and local residents can quickly escalate into confrontation, unrest, and even violence.” 

He also struck a personal note in considering the way forward. “As our nation’s attorney general, I will always be proud—and steadfast—In my support for law enforcement personnel and their families, who make tremendous and often unheralded sacrifices every single day to keep us safe. And 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 an understanding of the mistrust that some citizens harbor for those who wear the badge. So today, it’s time to ask ourselves—as a nation—are we conducting policing in the 21st century in a manner that is as effective, as efficient, as equitable, and as just as is possible?”

Holder had spoken previously at NYU Law on September 17 about corporate crime and compliance at an event co-sponsored by the NYU Program on Corporate Compliance and Enforcement and the Milbank Tweed Forum. While citing the Dodd-Frank Act as an important measure to rein in risky financial maneuvers, Holder warned that more needed to be done to crack down on the kinds of behavior that triggered worldwide financial chaos in 2008.

Stressing the Justice Department’s ongoing commitment to prosecuting financial fraud, Holder explained that his agency had sometimes held entire corporate entities accountable with both civil and criminal cases “where pervasive cultures of illegality and irresponsibility have taken hold.” The Justice Department has also continued to investigate potentially culpable individuals at those firms to promote individual accountability, fairness, and deterrence, he said.

Holder proposed changes to the law that would facilitate the designation of specific corporate officers as those responsible for institutional misconduct. But it was another of Holder’s proposals that made headlines: providing Wall Street whistleblowers larger financial incentives to step forward with inside information about wrongdoing. Often, he added, a case hinges on such evidence. 

Watch the full video of Eric Holder's keynote address on shifting law enforcement goals (33 min):

Watch the full video of Eric Holder's speech on corporate compliance and enforcement (33 min):

Posted September 24, 2014