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Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates Delivers Remarks at the Bipartisan Summit on Fair Justice


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you for that kind introduction and for inviting me to speak here today on this critical issue facing our country.  It’s a privilege to share a stage this morning with such distinguished leaders and public servants from all backgrounds and political persuasions.  The Coalition for Public Safety has done a remarkable job building common ground on the issue of criminal justice reform and I want to applaud the coalition’s members for their willingness to transcend traditional barriers to tackle one of our country’s great challenges. 

This group is sometimes called the strange bedfellows group and as a career prosecutor, my presence might be considered by some to be the strangest of all.  But in fact, it’s because I’m a prosecutor that I believe so strongly in criminal justice reform.  I have seen firsthand the impact that our current system and particularly our federal drug sentencing laws, can have on communities, families, the public fisc and public confidence in our criminal justice system.  And it’s because of that I believe that we can and we must do better.

let me be clear.  I’ve been a prosecutor for 26 years.  I believe in holding people accountable when they violate the law and I believe that some people are dangerous and need to go to prison, sometimes for a very long time.  But our system of justice must be capable of distinguishing between the individual that threatens our safety and needs to be imprisoned, versus the individual for whom alternatives to incarceration better serve not only that individual, but also make our communities safer.

You all know the facts that bring us here today.  When we are only five percent of the world’s population, yet have 25 percent of its prisoners, when we incarcerate four times as many people as China, we need to step back and reconsider how we’re approaching our criminal justice system.

On the federal side, where I work, we’ve seen an explosion in our prison population since the 1980’s.  While the country’s population has grown by about a third since 1980, our federal prison population has grown by 800 percent, due in large part to the influx of drug defendants.  And today, under the current sentencing regime, our mandatory minimum laws do not calibrate a defendant’s sentence to match the threat that he or she poses to our safety.  At its core, one of the basic problems with our mandatory minimum system is that it’s based almost exclusively on one factor – drug quantity.  And so we have a hard time distinguishing the cartel leader who needs to be in prison for a long time from the low level mope who doesn’t.  As a result, we have some defendants serving far more time in prison than necessary to punish and deter and instead, in the words of former Attorney General Holder, sometimes we warehouse and forget.  This comes with great costs.  Costs to operate our prison system, costs to our families and communities and costs to the public’s confidence in their system of justice.

From a dollars and cents standpoint, prisons and detention now account for roughly one-third of the department’s budget.  Every dollar that we spend incarcerating non-violent drug offenders is a dollar that we can’t spend investigating today’s emerging threats, from hackers to home-grown terrorists.  These costs are swallowing up funds that would otherwise be available for state and local law enforcement, victims of crime and prevention and reentry programs. 

But there are human costs, too.  Too many children are growing up with a parent behind bars.  One in nine African-American children has a parent in prison.  This cuts deeply into our society and we must not pass this legacy to the next generation.

Some states have been great innovators in criminal justice reform.  I met just yesterday with the National District Attorneys Association and I learned of many programs, from drug courts to recidivism reduction programs going on across the country designed to shift from incarceration as the only answer to prevention as the first response.  And many states, red states and blue states, like Texas, Ohio, North Carolina and my home state of Georgia, faced with exploding prison costs, have enacted bold criminal justice reform not only reducing the size of their prison populations, but also and this is the important part, reducing crime rates as well.  In the 29 states that have enacted laws limiting mandatory minimum sentences, shifting funds from incarceration to prevention, virtually every state has experienced a reduction in violent crime as well. 

Despite all of this, there are some who want to keep things as they are.  One of the most common concerns that I hear expressed about eliminating or reducing mandatory minimums is that long sentences for low level defendants is the only way to secure cooperation against the worst criminals.  Not only is this inconsistent with my personal experience as a prosecutor, it is inconsistent with the data we have gathered since the Department of Justice recalibrated our drug charging policy two years ago.  As I expect you know, under former Attorney General Holder’s smart on crime policy, prosecutors were directed not to charge mandatory minimums for lower level, non-violent drug offenders and our use of mandatory minimums decreased by 20 percent.  Although some feared that defendants would stop pleading guilty and stop cooperating, our experience has been just the opposite.  In fact, defendants are pleading guilty at the same rates as they were before we instituted the new policy.  So the fear that not charging mandatory minimums would prevent us from being able to work our way up the chain just hasn’t been borne out.

But to make lasting changes, Congress must restore a sense of proportionality to our sentencing laws.  As a society, we must balance our need for deterrence and our desire for retribution with our decency, our humanity and our sense of fairness.  We need an approach that is more carefully tailored, so that we can better distinguish between those who pose a genuine threat to our society and those who do not. 

I am here in part because I believe that sentencing reform will make prosecutors and law enforcement officers more effective, not less.  Our ability to do good in this world – to advocate for victims, to hold wrongdoers accountable, to seek justice in all its forms – depends on public confidence in the institutions we represent.  It’s based on a hard-earned reputation for fairness, impartiality and proportionality that has forever been the bedrock of our criminal justice system. 

As prosecutors, it is our obligation to speak out against injustices and to correct them when we can.  That’s why the Department of Justice is so engaged on this issue and I why I look forward to working with members of both parties as we seek a more proportional system of justice.  Our nation and its citizens deserve nothing less.

Thank you.

Updated July 22, 2015