Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general fired by President Trump for opposing his Muslim travel ban, says science-based justice reforms have taken root at the Department of Justice (DOJ) despite the regular barrage of “assaults” from the president on the integrity of her former colleagues.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Yates said career DOJ officials “are trying to keep their heads down and keep doing their (jobs) based on facts and the law,” even as the department has been plunged into new uncertainty following the firing of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“It’s a tough time for folks at the DOJ,” said Yates, noting that DOJ employees have been “essentially assaulted on what feels like a daily basis by the President of the United States, undermining [their work], accusing them of being corrupt.”
She said the administration has perpetrated a “norm-busting” culture through presidential comments, tweets and actions that would once have been considered “presidency-busting, but now just get people to roll their eyes.”
“We’ve come to accept that this is just normal,” she said.
Yates, a 27-year-veteran prosecutor and U.S. Attorney, served as Deputy Attorney General in the Obama administration. She was appointed acting attorney general by Trump on Jan. 20, 2017.
But she was fired for insubordination 10 days later, after ordering DOJ staff not to defend a presidential order temporarily barring citizens from some Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S., on the grounds that it was unconstitutional—a position later upheld by federal courts.
Efforts by the White House to undermine what it considers the too-liberal justice establishment at “Main Justice” have continued through the tenure of Sessions and are unlikely to end with the appointment of the controversial Matthew Whitaker to replace him as acting A-G, she said.
“I have felt good that folks at DOJ are resisting” the politicization of the department, said Yates, who is now a partner at her former Atlanta law firm.
Yates was participating with other former DOJ officials at a discussion panel on “criminal justice policy and practice in the current administration.”
Also on the panel were: Joe Whitley, a former Associate Attorney General in the George W. Bush administration; and Nancy La Vigne, now vice president of justice policy at the Urban Institute.
Asked by former assistant attorney general Laurie Robinson, whether the evidence-based reform initiatives begun under previous administrations would survive, Yates said she was optimistic.
“Regardless of the priorities of this administration, the benefits have been seen in progressive and conservative states,” said Yates, citing the gathering movement to loosen harsh sentencing guidelines and develop alternatives to incarceration.
At the federal level, she was concerned that efforts begun under the last administration to modify federal sentencing guidelines, which resulted for instance in a 20 percent reduction in the use of mandatory-minimum penalties and a corresponding decline in federal prison populations “for the first time in decades” had been stalled.
And she said there was a danger that public support for such reforms would decline as a result of the administration’s tough-on-crime rhetoric.
“If it’s framed as ‘American carnage,’ people start believing that stuff,” Yates said.
Nevertheless, she pointed out, “criminal justice reform is one of the few issues on which there is bipartisan agreement.”
She welcomed Trump’s recent endorsement of a modified federal sentencing reform bill, which she called a “modest step but an important step.”
In an ideal scenario, the Justice Department would reinforce efforts to invest more in prisoner education and programs to explore more alternatives to incarceration.
“The good news is that (the changes we’ve seen) are rooted in the states,” she said. “The bad news is (continuing reform efforts) are not getting the research and grant support they were getting before (from the federal government).”
Stephen Handelman is executive editor of The Crime Report.