Senate confirmation hearings put nominees on notice that, as a Michigan state legislator reportedly once said, “I’m watching everything you do with a fine-toothed comb.” Loretta Lynch, a talented lawyer and seasoned U.S. attorney, should be confirmed as attorney general. Her hearing, however, should not be perfunctory. Questions like the following would highlight some festering problems:
• Next year is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, which began the slow, serpentine progress to our modern panoply of rights, including those of persons accused of serious crimes. Today, however, regarding sexual misconduct on campuses, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights uses the threat of withdrawing federal funding to coerce colleges and universities into jettisoning crucial defendants’ protections when adjudicating, in improvised tribunals, accusations of sexual assault. Presumption of innocence? The new presumption is that accusations are valid until disproved. The right to confront one’s accuser? No, it would be traumatizing to the “survivor” (note the prejudgment). Proof beyond a reasonable doubt? Now a mere “preponderance of the evidence” will suffice. Are you comfortable with this traducing of due process?
• Much ink and indignation have been properly expended concerning the torture of some detainees by counterterrorism personnel. But what about the promiscuous use — currently impacting thousands of prisoners — of long-term solitary confinement in prisons? In 1890, the Supreme Court said of such punishment: “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide.” Given its deranging effects, does this practice constitute torture as defined by federal law — conduct “specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering”?
• Years pass, studies are written and vows are made, yet the scandal of prison rape persists. When will the government stop this crime against inmates in its custody?
• The U.S. incarceration rate is five times Wales and England’s, nine times Germany’s, 14 times Japan’s. In 2010, more than 200,000 inmates — approximately the nation’s total number of prisoners in 1970 — were over the age of 50. How can this be necessary?
• When choosing between two evils, Mae West said, “I always pick the one I never tried before.” The number of drug offenders in federal prisons is 20 times the number in 1980 and accounts for more than half of our federal mass incarceration. The “war on drugs” is horrendously expensive (in money and shattered lives) and hardly effective (drug prices fall as quality rises). Is it time to consider decriminalizing some controlled substances?
• In California, which spends almost as much on corrections and rehabilitation as on universities, approximately 2,000 persons who have committed no violent or otherwise serious crime are serving 25 years to life under the state’s “three strikes and you’re out” law. It mandates such sentences for any third felony. Do you think that mandatory — and often draconian — minimum sentences prevent judges from judging? And that the threat of such sentences, by extorting guilty pleas, can vitiate the right to a trial?
• The Justice Department has been, to say no more, unhelpful regarding attempts to fully investigate and properly punish the politicization and corruption of the IRS. Given the department’s seeming complicity in the coverup, would it not be appropriate to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS practice of suppressing the political activity of conservative groups?
• Civil forfeiture — the seizure of property suspected of being produced by, or involved with, crime — has become a lucrative business for lawless law enforcement. Civil forfeiture treats citizens worse than criminals, seizing the property of persons neither convicted of nor even indicted for a crime. All or a portion of the proceeds from the sale of such property goes to those who seized it. You are familiar with this form of moral hazard: Between 2011 and 2013, your U.S. attorney’s office reaped more than $113 million from such forfeitures. Do you agree that this practice often is indistinguishable from robbery?
• Many progressives say that the 34 states that have passed laws requiring voters to have a government-issued photo ID are practicing “vote suppression.” Does requiring a photo ID at airports constitute “travel suppression”? Visitors to the Justice Department are required to present photo IDs. Will you — we will be watching with a fine-toothed comb — plan to end this “visit suppression”?
George Will’s column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.