Holder’s Mission: Revamp Federal Justice System

Post Date: November 14, 2013

(USA TODAY/Philadelphia) —  It was a most unusual scene for a federal courtroom. Seventeen former convicts, some dressed in hoodies and weary from pulling all-night shifts, took turns updating U.S. District Judge Felipe Respreto last week on their progress toward finding their way back from societal exile, some after serving more than a decade in prison.

Many spoke of struggles finding permanent employment, places to live, child care and medical assistance.

All the while, the man from Washington quietly took it all in from a seat near the judge’s bench, until the unusual docket call was complete.

“I grew up in a neighborhood in Queens (N.Y.), where guys like you would have been my boys, you know?” Attorney General Eric Holder told the assembled ex-offenders. “We’d have played ball together, we’d have partied together. … Life is not always fair. The question is how do you deal with that unfairness. It will not be easy.”

For the attorney general, who has spent much of his tenure being hammered by congressional committees related to the government’s seizure of reporters’ telephone records and second-guessed on his desire to prosecute terror defendants in civilian courts, the Philadelphia courtroom represented the next step on a new and deeply personal mission to revamp the federal criminal justice system.

Philadelphia’s Supervision To Aid Re-entry (STAR) is part of a series of efforts Holder is pushing to redirect a system burdened by a crushing federal prison population of nearly 220,000 that is 40% over capacity, requiring about 25% of the $27 billion Justice budget to maintain.

The task, which Holder first outlined this year in a speech to the American Bar Association when he referred to a “broken” American legal system, has been elevated to a major priority at Justice and is helping to provide new meaning for an attorney general who had considered stepping aside. Holder took the campaign to St. Louis and Peoria, Ill., Thursday to voice support for similar programs.

“It’s something that really animates me and makes me want to continue in this job,” Holder said in an interview with USA TODAY. “There are still things I want to do.” Read more