The Senate Judiciary Committee just approved Loretta Lynch’s nomination to be the next Attorney General of the United States, advancing her nomination to consideration by the full Senate. Over the past few weeks, support from a variety of groups, including senators, law enforcement, and sorority sisters poured in, with many arguing, emphatically, that Lynch is the perfect person to fill Holder’s shoes. But questions about whether or not Lynch will protect — and carry the torch — of Holder’s robust criminal justice legacy linger.
So what do civil rights organizations and activists make of Lynch’s confirmation? For the most part, they are cautiously optimistic.
Across the board, Lynch is perceived as a respectable and professional prosecutor, but she has yet to set herself up as a criminal justice reformer. During her nomination hearing, Lynch did not explicitly state intentions to tackle the issues that Holder concentrated on during his tenure. Her opening remarks before the Senate committee made no mention of mass incarceration, drug policy, police conduct, voting rights, or race. While her silence may have been a strategic way to win the support of Republican Senators, it could also indicate disinterest in reform.
If that is the case, her confirmation would change the kind of leadership that sits at the top of the Justice Department. As Attorney General, Holder championed civil rights reform across a wide range of areas. He successfully pressured police departments to confront officers’ excessive use of force against civilians. He unapologetically vocalized the racial disparities rooted in the justice system, from disproportionate sentencing and arrest rates to the discriminatory impact of Stand your Ground laws. With his Smart on Crime Initiative, Holder deemphasized the incarceration of low-level, non-violent offenders, and accentuated the importance of re-entry and rehabilitation programs. And after the Supreme Court gutted a provision of the Voting Rights Act, making it easier for states to implement voter suppression laws, Holder filed lawsuits against Texas and North Carolina for disenfranchising voters of color.
Yet, according to one reform advocate, Holder’s record prior to his tenure as attorney general did not necessarily predict his actions once he took over the Justice Department. “One thing to keep in mind is that when Eric first came in, there weren’t many people who predicted that he’d be a great criminal justice reformer at the time,” said Marc Mauer, the Sentencing Project’s executive director. “He made tough on crime statements and actions as a prosecutor. Six years later, he’s been the most outspoken attorney general we’ve ever had.”
Still, there is no guarantee that Lynch will follow a similar trajectory, and timing is of the essence. With criminal justice quickly becoming a bipartisan policy issue, reformers want an attorney general who will prioritize it from the get go. For instance, the executive director of Justice Policy Institute, Marc Schindler, hopes that Lynch will focus on drug offenses and mandatory minimums — two issue areas that Department of Justice has championed in the last year. Just last week, Holder announced a 6 percent reduction in drug prosecutions that resulted from his more tempered approach to sentencing. Schindler hopes that Lynch will capitalize on that victory.
“I absolutely believe that there’s opportunity and momentum to shift the way we think about justice. There’s an acknowledgement across the political spectrum that incarceration for young people or adults is not the wisest investment that we can be making,” he told ThinkProgress. Those reforms, he argues, must happen simultaneously from the top-down and bottom-up. In short, “she should hit the ground running.”
But another source of concern is Lynch’s previous positions on the issues at stake. Unlike Holder, she supports capital punishment (Holder says that he is personally opposed to the death penalty, although he has authorized its use in the past). During her confirmation hearing, she made it clear that she will not support marijuana legalization, even though it can drastically reduce the national incarceration rate and sentencing disparities for low-income communities of color. On the other hand, “there is no reason to believe that she’ll reverse course on support for re-entry, sentencing reform, and Holder’s Smart on Crime initiative,” according to Mauer. She’s also expressed an interest in juvenile justice reform, which is appealing to justice policy supporters.
In spite of the differences between Lynch and Holder, Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney for the Advancement Project and co-chair of the Don’t Shoot Coalition, firmly believes that Lynch is an ideal candidate. Her personal background as a black woman who was raised in North Carolina — a hub for civil rights activism — suggests that she understands the nuances of the major obstacles to criminal justice today, such as voting rights and racially discriminatory police practices.
“Her candidacy for this position comes at a pivotal time in this nation for civil rights. i would suggest that we’re in a crisis, in so many areas that directly touch people’s lives: voting, police practices, education reform,” harped Lieberman. “It’s important to have someone in that top role who has experience and understands the nuances of how civil rights violations harm real people. Loretta Lynch’s professional and personal background suggests that she does.”
So for now, it seems as though the only source of apprehension is the fact that Lynch’s future platform is still up in the air.