Former Federal Judge Nancy Gertner was appointed to the federal bench by Bill Clinton in 1994. She presided over trials for 17 years. And Sunday, she stood before a crowd at The Aspen Ideas Festival to denounce most punishments that she imposed.
Among 500 sanctions that she handed down, “80 percent I believe were unfair and disproportionate,” she said. “I left the bench in 2011 to join the Harvard faculty to write about those stories––to write about how it came to pass that I was obliged to sentence people to terms that, frankly, made no sense under any philosophy.”
No theory of retribution or social change could justify them, she said. And that dispiriting conclusion inspired the radical idea that she presented: a call for the U.S. to mimic its decision after World War II to look to the future and rebuild rather than trying to punish or seek retribution. As she sees it, the War on Drugs ought to end in that same spirit. “Although we were not remotely the victors of that war, we need a big idea in order to deal with those who were its victims,” she said, calling for something like a Marshall Plan.
She went on to savage the War on Drugs at greater length.
“This is a war that I saw destroy lives,” she said. “It eliminated a generation of African American men, covered our racism in ostensibly neutral guidelines and mandatory minimums… and created an intergenerational problem––although I wasn't on the bench long enough to see this, we know that the sons and daughters of the people we sentenced are in trouble, and are in trouble with the criminal justice system.”
She added that the War on Drugs eliminated the political participation of its casualties. “We were not leveling cities as we did in WWII with bombs, but with prosecution, prison, and punishment,” she said, explaining that her life’s work is now focused on trying to reconstruct the lives that she undermined––as a general matter, by advocating for reform, and as a specific project: she is trying to go through the list of all the people she sentenced to see who deserves executive clemency.
Her remarks can be watched in full beginning at about the 42 minute mark in the video below:
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