Eric Holder, the first African-American attorney general, resigned on Thursday, though he’ll remain at his post until his replacement is confirmed. Holder’s tenure has been a mixed bag in many ways, and many have criticized his stances on terrorism prosecution, civil rights and the war on drugs (especially the Fast and Furious debacle).
In the realm of juvenile justice though, he has shown himself to be a forward-thinking advocate for change. This stance is closely tied to his willingness to speak plainly about race and its intersection with the justice system in a way rarely seen by officials at such high levels. His examples in this area will be hard to follow.
From the beginning of his tenure he was freer than President Obama to speak more plainly about race. Holder gave his famous (or infamous in conservative eyes) “cowards speech” in 2009, shortly after his confirmation. Putting the lie to the “melting pot” myth (at least as far as African Americans are concerned), Holder declared that “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”
He went on with optimism though, encouraging everyday Americans to begin to have conversations (and take actions) to heal the racial divide. “We must be comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations” about these issues, he said.
Holder made equally bold statements about juvenile justice reform, particularly the use of solitary confinement for children. Calling such isolation practices “dangerous” and a “serious impediment” to youths’ ability to reintegrate into society, he pointed out the links between isolation and self-harm, including suicide.
He called out the states’ over-reliance on such practices, especially for youth with disabilities, and backed it up with legal action and support of best practices. He reminded the nation and those who work with kids in trouble that the job of the juvenile justice system is “to rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and to forget.”
In 2011, in a speech to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Holder again spoke plainly. “The evidence of our nation’s juvenile justice system is in — and it demonstrates that change is needed. The current system does not spend resources as wisely as it should. And it does not improve as many lives as it could.”
Why, he asked, do black youth make up over half the population of juveniles arrested for violent crime? Why are kids who are abused and neglected “11 times more likely … to be arrested?”
Holder pointed out that homelessness, adult incarceration, increased violence and sexual victimization were all part of the current system. Again, he backed up his words with actions by appointing Robert Listenbee, a longtime juvenile justice advocate and reformer to head the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
He clearly discerned the connections between juvenile crime and larger conditions, and saw that solutions must “address not just the consequences of crime, but also the underlying causes. [Such approaches] will … replace broken social patterns with healthy ones, and dysfunctional systems and practices with effective, and proven, solutions,” he said in his 2011 speech.
Most importantly, he saw beyond policy to the moral implications of how we treat children who find themselves caught up in the juvenile justice system. Holder noted the link that Bobby Kennedy, whom Holder holds as a personal hero, drew between justice and how we treat our nation’s children.
“Kennedy believed that the link between justice and children could never be broken without compromising our founding ideals …This is a moral issue. How we treat our children answers the question of who we are as a nation,” he said in his speech.
He couldn’t be more right, and I hope that whoever succeeds him brings the same moral understanding to the job. We need it.
John Lash is the executive director of Georgia Conflict Center in Athens, Ga., where he works to increase the use of restorative justice approaches in the juvenile court, schools and the community, and teaches conflict management skills in various settings. He is a graduate of the Master in Conflict Management program at Kennesaw State University. He is a regular op-ed contributor to JJIE, where he also assists in website management and content curation.