What if the Department of Justice knew that scores of Americans were in jail for committing acts that were not in fact illegal, but made no effort to identify the wrongfully imprisoned and refused to release prisoners known to be innocent? You'd think it would be a scandal. Perhaps the biggest yet under Attorney General Eric Holder, presently under fire in the Fast and Furious investigation.
As it turns out, the news would go mostly ignored. That's now known because
last week, reporter Brad Heath broke the story described above in a national publication:
A USA TODAY investigation, based on court records and interviews with government officials and attorneys, found more than 60 men who went to prison for violating federal gun possession laws, even though courts have since determined that it was not a federal crime for them to have a gun.Two quotations in the story make for a striking juxtaposition.
Many of them don't even know they're innocent.
Still, the Justice Department has not attempted to identify the men, has made no effort to notify them, and, in a few cases in which the men have come forward on their own, has argued in court that they should not be released. Justice Department officials said it is not their job to notify prisoners that they might be incarcerated for something that they now concede is not a crime. And although they have agreed in court filings that the men are innocent, they said they must still comply with federal laws that put strict limits on when and how people can challenge their convictions in court.
Here's U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins: "We can't be outcome driven. We've got to make sure we follow the law, and people should want us to do that."
And here's assistant federal public defender Debra Graves: "If someone is innocent, I would think that would change the government's reaction, and it's sad that it hasn't. I have trouble figuring out how you rationalize this. These are innocent people. That has to matter at some point."
Perhaps the story is getting so little attention because it affects people with criminal records, some quite reprehensible.
Or maybe it's that the details get complicated quickly:
Decades ago, Congress made it a federal crime for convicted felons to have a gun .... To make that law work in every state, Congress wrote one national definition of who cannot own a gun: someone who has been convicted of a crime serious enough that he or she could have been sentenced to more than a year in prison. Figuring out who fits that definition in North Carolina is not as simple as it sounds. In 1993, state lawmakers adopted a unique system called "structured sentencing" that changes the maximum prison term for a crime, based on the record of the person who committed it. People with relatively short criminal records who commit crimes such as distributing cocaine and writing bad checks face no more than a few months in jail; people with more extensive records face much longer sentences.The bottom line is nevertheless quite simple. As Radley Balko puts it, "There are innocent people in prison, everyone knows it, yet the government won't work to get them out, due to 'procedure.'"
For years, federal courts in North Carolina said that did not matter. The courts said, in effect: If someone with a long record could have gone to prison for more than a year for the crime, then everyone who committed that crime is a felon, and all of them are legally barred from possessing a gun. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said federal courts (including itself) had been getting the law wrong.
Attorney General Holder didn't create this mess. But it sure looks like it's another injustice that he's failing to clean up. After President Obama and Harold Koh, perhaps no one in the Obama Administration has been a bigger disappointment to civil libertarians than Holder, so much so that Wil S. Hylton mused in a 2010 profile about whether there was any reason for him to keep his job. "He has promised to end the policy of indefinite detention at Guantánamo by prosecuting some of its most notorious detainees; to investigate torture by the CIA; and to revitalize the department's most neglected offices, like the long-suffering Civil Rights Division," Hylton wrote -- and he got a bigger budget and improved staffing for the Civil Rights Division. As for the rest:
In case after case, he seems to have reconciled himself to policies that he would have once condemned .... All of which raises the fundamental question that surrounds Holder's legacy at Justice: Given his failure to provide a "reckoning" for torture, given his refusal to extend the rule of law to enemy combatants, given his inability to defend citizens against assassination by their own government, and given that he has already accomplished the thing that initially brought him to the DOJ, what, precisely, keeps him in the job now?In the time since that profile was written, the parties responsible for the Fast and Furious gun-walking case haven't been held accountable, the War on Drugs continues apace, and now we find out that department is knowingly keeping scores of men behind bars despite the fact that they're innocent. If this is what happens when a Democratic president appoints someone progressives regard as a dream attorney general, what exactly is the point of a progressive attorney general?
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