Two criminal justice goals set by Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. drew applause from the ABA House of Delegates this afternoon.
The positive responses came when Holder told the lawyers gathered that the U.S. Justice Department would focus on improving indigent defense, including the country’s lagging investment in public defender programs, and on persuading states to guarantee defendants access to DNA evidence in certain situations.
“We must move beyond the narrow parameters that have constrained our nation’s debate about criminal justice policy over the last several decades,” Holder said. “There is no doubt that we must be 'tough on crime.' But we must also commit ourselves to being 'smart on crime.' ”
Holder addressed the ABA annual meeting just six months into his term. He addressed a number of issues he has addresses before, and he declined to take any questions following the speech.
With respect to the lack of resources for public defender programs, Holder said that those programs receive only 3 percent of criminal budget spending in the nation’s biggest counties. “This growing crisis is troubling not just because of the government’s constitutional duty to ensure the right to counsel,” he said. “When defendants fail to receive competent legal representation, their cases are vulnerable to costly and time-consuming mistakes.”
Holder described the Justice Department as committed to using the best available technology, including forensic science, whenever possible. Defendants should have access to DNA evidence in a variety of situations, he said.
In a reference to the U.S. Supreme Court's June 18 decision in District Attorney's Office v. Osborne, which found no constitutional right to post-conviction access to DNA evidence, Holder said, “Federal law already guarantees access to DNA evidence held by the federal government under specific conditions, and I hope that all states will follow the federal government’s lead on this issue regardless of what the Supreme Court has said.”