William Barr reaffirms commitment to First Step Act criminal justice reform

March 5, 2019 GMT

Newly confirmed Attorney General William P. Barr said Monday he would implement the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill he had previously opposed.

“I am committed to implementing the First Step Act,” he said in a speech before the National Association of Attorneys General.

The First Step Act, a bipartisan measure signed into law last year by President Trump reduces federal prison sentences, including those imposed on low-level drug offenders.

Mr. Barr earned a reputation as a hard-liner on sentencing and criminal justice issues during his first tenure as attorney general, from 1991 to 1993. That raised questions among some lawmakers at his January confirmation hearing about his commitment to the new law.


He put those concerns to rest at his hearing, telling senators when he served in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, crime was too high and prison sentences were too short. But he said that those circumstances have changed and he would faithfully execute the new law.

On Monday, Mr. Barr renewed that commitment in first major speech as Mr. Trump’s attorney general.

He told the group that “crime is falling” under the Trump administration, evidence that pushing for tough sentences isn’t as necessary as it was in the 1990s.

Mr. Barr led off the event, setting the stage for Mr. Trump to tout his administration’s crime reduction efforts.

“Last year, we prosecuted the most violent criminals ever,” Mr. Trump said. “Violent crime is going down for the first time. Murders in America’s largest cities dropped by 7 percent between 2016 and 2017.”

FBI preliminary statistics released last month show crime, violent crime and murder have continued to drop since that statistic. During the first half of 2018 from the same period in 2017. The report, which compiles data from roughly 14,000 law enforcement agencies, found violent crime dropped by 4.3 percent, murder fell by 6.7 percent and property crime declined by 7.2 percent.

The president said the improving economy is among the chief reasons crime has fallen during his administration.

“Part of the reason we are doing well is that people are getting jobs because the economy may be the strongest it’s ever been,” he said, telling the state attorneys general that a strong economy “helps with what you do.”

Mr. Trump also renewed his call for increased border security. Last month, Mr. Trump declared a national emergency to redirect funds to the construction of a border wall.


“Drug trafficking and human traffickers exploit our porous border to finance their ruthless operations across our hemisphere,” he said. “One in three women is sexually assaulted and criminal cartels terrorize people on both sides of the border.

Mr. Trump reaffirmed his pledge to tackle the nation’s drug crisis, which claimed roughly 72,000 lives in 2017, according to the most recent numbers. He also reaffirmed his commitment to blocking the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl from coming into the country.

He praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for considering implementing the death penalty against distributors and pushers of fentanyl, which is 50-to-100 times more powerful than morphine.