Norman Dorsen Professor of Civil Liberties Erin Murphy returned to NYU Law in August after a year-long public service leave at the White House, where she served as senior policy advisor for criminal justice at the Domestic Policy Council (DPC). Her past research has focused on technology in the criminal justice system, with an emphasis on forensic evidence. The author of Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA, Murphy is a nationally recognized expert in forensic DNA typing, and her work has been cited multiple times by the Supreme Court.
At the DPC, which drives the development and implementation of the president’s domestic agenda across the federal government, Murphy worked on prominent issues that included policing, drug policy, access to justice, and alternatives to incarceration. In this interview, she looks back on her year serving in the Biden administration.
What did the day-to-day in your role at the White House look like?
Internal meetings, external meetings, quite a bit of research, both in the form of actual reading materials and in meetings with authors of those papers and stakeholders to say, “Is this [research] bearing out as true in your own lived experiences?” One of the great things about being at the White House is that you have this incredible power to have a meeting with pretty much anyone you want at any time. If you call someone to say, “I’m calling from the White House, and I'm interested in your paper,” or “I’m calling from the White House, and we want to know what your association thinks about this,” they say, “Great!” And the deep expertise of executive agencies can be tapped. The job is a lot of memo drafting and policy-honing based on research and communication. Then once a policy is set, there is a whole separate set of meetings to make sure it’s being implemented efficiently and faithfully.
Within the White House, the criminal justice team worked closely with the White House Counsel’s Office. We worked with the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs because, again, criminal justice is an issue that is so heavily “state,” that we needed to liaise with our state partners a lot. We did a lot of work with the Office of Public Engagement—they are the ones who are responsible for communicating with stakeholders, such as civil rights groups, law enforcement groups, and others. And we worked with the Office of Legislative Affairs, as this portfolio held issues that were of great interest to members of Congress.
I also worked a lot with the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and to a much lesser extent, some other policy councils including the Gender Policy Council, National Economic Council, and the National Security Council. It is critical to regularly interface with others within the White House because there are a lot of people with particular expertise and roles to play, and it’s important both to tap into that and to ensure that everyone is executing the president’s agenda in a clear, consistent manner.
Lastly, working with the communications staff was a big component of my job by virtue of having a high-profile portfolio. It was also a tumultuous period for criminal justice policy in general. There was great urgency to respond meaningfully to rising crime rates, but also to address the inequities that COVID and the George Floyd murder had laid bare. It felt at times like a new issue would flare up every day. So we also had to keep in close contact with the communications staff, who look to policy experts to help ensure that the White House is communicating the President’s views clearly and accurately to the American people. As a senior policy advisor for criminal justice at the Domestic Policy Council, I felt at times like a firefighter by day and a researcher by night.
What goals did you have in this role?
My primary goal was to serve the country, to do some good. It was so exciting to be in a job where the knowledge and experience that I have acquired in my field could have a much more direct impact at the systemic level and on people’s lived experiences.
It also turned out to be an incredibly interesting time to work on these issues. I entered this role in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and left just as the GOP was framing up the midterm election in “tough on crime” terms reminiscent of the 1990s. So on one hand, there was this incredible momentum, perhaps the strongest since the 1960s, to really examine our criminal legal system. On the other hand, there was a very real backlash and whipsaw where, in a pretty short span of time, it felt like public sentiment went from, “we want to reimagine public safety,” to “we want to double down on the status quo.” The President had run on a clear agenda of supporting law enforcement, but also reforming law enforcement, and especially on promoting racial equity, and his policy decisions throughout the year reflected that. But it made our jobs all the more delicate as we were processing inputs from so many divergent and often conflicting constituencies.
This was especially true of my major issue areas: marijuana and policing, both of which culminated in concrete, highly impactful actions by President Biden. In May 2022, the President signed an executive order on effective, accountable policing and criminal justice reform, and in October, he pardoned federal and DC marijuana possession convictions and initiated a rulemaking to revisit the classification of marijuana as a highly controlled substance. Both were bold, courageous, steps, and both ended up garnering widespread praise. As part of the team that helped bring both to fruition, I found that incredibly rewarding.
I also really valued this opportunity to learn more about how the executive branch works. I came in knowing a bit about the Department of Justice for example, but I really did not know much about the Executive Office of the President (EOP). Learning more about how the executive branch and the EOP think about and analyze a problem matters a lot to me, because I try to use my research so that it affects the “real world.” After my experience in the White House, I have a better understanding of how to be a valuable and meaningful contributor to conversations about policy.
You returned to NYU Law, where you’ve been a faculty member since 2010, this semester. How did your experience working for the Domestic Policy Council influence your teaching?
I am teaching a legalization of marijuana reading group this year, which is a direct outgrowth of the work I did on that issue. Drug policy is something that I’d never really done as an academic, but I have become really interested in questions surrounding the legalization of marijuana.
And my teaching of Criminal Law in the spring will be heavily influenced by my experience at the White House. I think I have gained a better appreciation for the dynamics around criminal legal system reform and a better appreciation for what is actually going on, both on the ground in the political (both executive and legislative) branches.
And another one of the best things about the job was that I talked to so many different people, and now I have such a better appreciation for all the work that is being done right now across issues in the criminal legal system—whether by activists, politicians, organized groups, or individuals—and a lot more direct experience with the personalities and the people and the agenda that they're trying to set.
I think all of that will have a really powerful impact on how I think about criminal law issues and teach criminal law issues. I'm really excited about that.
What are you looking forward to next in your career?
I am interested in writing another book. I came out of this experience working for the Domestic Policy Council with a much more sophisticated understanding of the benefit of academic research–specifically, academics’ capacity to influence, help, or guide policymakers. Now I have the insight and impetus to do much more work that I think could contribute to those debates meaningfully. So many of us [legal academics] are trying to figure out what the criminal legal system could look like if we truly tried to unwind mass incarceration, especially when we still have real public safety challenges that we have to address. I want to use some of my experience and knowledge as an academic, and now my exposure to government, to think about how to solve some of these really vexing problems.
I hope I continue to stay connected to that world of government, and to my colleagues at the White House who dazzled me daily with their brilliance and dedication. For now though, I am really excited to be liberated to my academic tower where I can set my own agenda and really drill down on and research questions that I wanted to explore more deeply. Plus, my phone rings a lot less!
Posted on December 9, 2022. This interview has been edited and condensed.