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Trump Pick For Sentencing Commission Has History Of Racially Charged Remarks

One of President Trump's picks for a seat on the body that sets policy used to punish 70,000 federal criminals every year has publicly called to abolish that agency, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and has a history of making racially charged remarks about crime.

William G. Otis is a former federal prosecutor in Virginia, special counsel to former President George H.W. Bush and an adviser at the Drug Enforcement Administration. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

But it's his years-long record of public comments and Internet posts on crime and drugs that have drawn fire from civil rights groups and prisoner advocates this week.

In 2013, for instance, Otis commented on a popular legal blog that "it is precisely because race and criminality have no causative relationship that our side cannot be cowed when the other side starts bellowing about racial disparities in imprisonment, and then claiming they are caused by racism. They are not caused by racism, and as you quite correctly say, they are not caused by race. They are caused by making choices."

Otis continued that the main social factor is a "stable, disciplined, employed, two-parent family life." And, he wrote, "this is the reason that, for example, Orientals have less incidence of crime than whites. ... The reason Orientals stay out of jail more than either whites or blacks is that family life, work, education and tradition are honored more in Oriental culture than in ours."

In another post, on his Crime and Consequences blog, Otis wrote: "When Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Jones said at a University of Pennsylvania Law School talk that blacks and Hispanics are more violent than whites, a consortium of civil rights organizations filed a complaint. The complaint calls for stern discipline, on the grounds that the remarks were 'discriminatory and biased.' "

He added: "So far as I have been able to discover, it makes no mention of the fact that they're true."

Otis is well-known in the community of people who closely follow criminal sentencing. He has long been in favor of stiff mandatory punishments for drug crimes, testifying in Congress and talking with the media, including NPR.

Last year he told Morning Edition, "What people don't realize as much as they should is that a courier in the drug business is just as essential as a car is in a pizza delivery business. The business — unless you can deliver your inventory, the business is going to fall apart."

He has held firm to those views even as an unusual bipartisan coalition has been working to push Congress to make punishments more lenient for low-level drug offenders. Among the people who share Otis' approach is Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

While lawmakers have failed to pass sweeping measures to reduce mandatory minimum prison terms, the U.S. Sentencing Commission moved in 2014 to pave the way to release thousands of drug offenders.

Word of the Otis nomination prompted outcry from groups that have been working to overhaul the criminal justice system, particularly for people convicted of drug offenses.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit group that works for inmates and their families, had never taken a formal position on a nominee for the Sentencing Commission — until the Otis pick.

"Mr. Otis's outdated views are well-known and well-documented," said FAMM president Kevin Ring. "This is not a person who will be guided by evidence and data. The Senate should reject this nomination."

The Justice Department and the White House had no immediate comment about the criticism.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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