WASHINGTON — Ahead of Attorney General-designate Merrick Garland's Senate confirmation hearing, the American Civil Liberties Union urged him to make strong, on-the-record commitments on five critical criminal justice issues outlined below.

The following is a statement from Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of the ACLU’s Justice Division:

“We applaud President Biden’s pledge to heal our country and reform our criminal legal system, and look forward to working with him and the attorney general nominee, Merrick Garland, to advance our shared goals. The Department of Justice must begin its work by addressing the national reckoning on racial justice that our country has seen over the course of the last year. While there was bipartisan support behind legislation like the First Step Act, under Attorneys General Sessions and Barr, DOJ supported the use of police violence against peaceful protesters, reinstated tough-on-crime charging and sentencing policies, and failed to use its authority to prevent hundreds of deaths from COVID-19 of individuals held in federal custody.

“In order to begin the process of true repair to those directly impacted, it's imperative that the Biden DOJ take decisive action to create a criminal legal system that is not only just but also provides a chance at redemption for those who are still bearing the burden of a generations long war on drugs, and the world's largest system of mass incarceration which disparately impacts people of color.”

Mass Incarceration: The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but 20 percent of the world’s incarcerated people, disproportionately from Black and Latinx communities. To combat the epidemic of mass incarceration, we urge the next attorney general to:

  • Direct prosecutors to stop charging mandatory minimums when alternative charges are available;
  • De-prioritize marijuana prosecutions, as well as misdemeanor possession cases for all types of controlled substances; and
  • Support the MORE Act.

Policing: The next attorney general will need to begin by reversing the damage done by the Trump administration’s explicit endorsements of police violence and militarization by:

  • Adopting a federal use of force standard that would permit officers to use force only when necessary, proportional, and as a last resort, after less extreme alternatives are exhausted; and
  • Prohibiting civil asset forfeiture programs that enable the militarization of local and state police departments.

COVID-19 in Federal Detention: Trump’s DOJ failed to use available levers for release to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities. We urge the next attorney general to swiftly:

  • Offer vaccinations with appropriate patient education and incentives to all persons in federal custody, including all persons incarcerated in private contract facilities; and
  • Decarcerate by expanding BOP’s use of home confinement and ending DOJ’s near-universal opposition to compassionate release motions.

The Federal Death Penalty: The federal death penalty is plagued by racism, geographic arbitrariness, and unfairness — just like the death penalty in the states. The next attorney general should:

  • Immediately suspend all federal executions;
  • Make it the policy of DOJ to not seek the death penalty in any case; and
  • Support executive clemency for individuals currently on federal death row.

Solitary Confinement: During the pandemic, COVID-19 infection rates and deaths have been exacerbated in prisons and jail due to misguided attempts to mitigate the spread of the virus through increased use of solitary confinement in lieu of medical isolation. The result has been nearly a 500 percent increase in the use of solitary confinement in 2020, with an estimated 300,000 people in solitary at any one time. To address the current spike in solitary confinement, which is a form of torture, we urge DOJ to:

  • Commit to swiftly end the ineffective and inhumane use of solitary confinement by the federal Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals Service during the pandemic.

The letter is available here: https://www.aclu.org/letter/aclu-letter-merrick-garland-priorities-bidens-department-justice

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