District Court Judge Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden’s attorney general nominee, faced hours of questioning on Monday during his confirmation hearing.
Garland dealt with tough queries from Republicans and Democrats all morning, but he was confronted with a particularly pointed line of questioning from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Booker, the only Black senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee, pressed Garland about his views on racism within the country's justice system and his goals for trying to reduce racial disparities found throughout the nation.
“I’m actually concerned with something I consider pernicious and very difficult to root out, which is the realities of implicit racial bias that lead to larger systemic racism. Now, I have been kind of stunned that the issue of systemic racism has become something argued over but if I can just walk you through for a second: Does our justice system treat people equally in this country, at this point?” Booker asked Garland.
Garland’s response was simple, “Sadly, and it is plain to me that it does not.”
Booker also pointed out the alarming rate of marijuana arrests in 2019.
“One of the big things driving arrests in our country, stunningly to me even that it’s still the case, is marijuana arrests,” Booker said. “We had in 2019 more marijuana arrests for possession than all violent crime arrests combined.”
Booker added that when broken down by race, these arrests disproportionately involved Black and brown people even though there’s no difference between how drugs are used or sold based on race.
“It is shocking that an African American has no difference in usage or selling than someone who is white in America, but their likelihood of being arrested for doing things — that two of the last four presidents admitted to doing — is three to four times higher than somebody white?” Booker asked. “Is that evidence that within the system there is implicit racial bias? Yes or no, sir?”
In response, Garland admitted that the country's justice system does not treat people equally based on race.
"Senator, there is no question that there is disparate treatment in our justice system. Mass incarceration is a very good example of this problem," Garland said.
"We're incarcerating almost 25 percent of the world's population and we have something like 5 percent of the world's population. I don't think that is because Americans are worse," he added.
When asked what he would do about this, Garland spoke about the need to focus on violent crime as opposed to drug crimes and said it was becoming clearer for many people that racism has an effect on almost every aspect of life in the United States.
He did not drill down into specifics about what exactly he would do to address racial disparities in arrests and charges, echoing much of what Booker said without going into detail.
“Race right now in our country is still playing a specific influence in the justice that someone gets,” Booker added.
Booker went on to ask his final question, which struck a chord with Garland.
“One thing you said to me privately particularly motivated me to believe you when you talk about your aspirations," Booker said. "I'm wondering if you can just conclude by talking — answering the question about your motivation and maybe some of your own family history in confronting hate and discrimination in American history."
Garland broke down and replied that his family fled to the United States because of anti-semitism.
"This country took us in and protected us. And I feel an obligation to the country to pay them back, and this is the highest, best use of my own set of skills. And so I want very much to be the kind of attorney general that you're saying I could become," he said.
"This is why I wanted to be attorney general," he added.
But, at the time, Democrats did not hold the Senate and Republicans refused to even consider Garland's nomination before the election, a decision that drew outcry last year when the GOP pushed through the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett just days before the presidential election.
The United States has the world's largest incarcerated population and data shows Black people are significantly more likely to be arrested, charged and imprisoned more harshly than any other race in the country.
Black people represent 33 percent of the prison population despite being just 13 percent of the general population. Overall, there are 465,200 black people being held in state or federal prison as of the end of 2018.
Even as the rate of incarceration has fallen significantly since 2006, Black people still have an imprisonment rate that was twice that of Hispanics and five times that of white people, according to Pew Research.
Of all the groups in the United States, the rates are specifically high for Black men. As of 2018, there were 2,272 inmates per 100,000 black men and just 1,018 inmates per 100,000 Hispanic men. There were only 392 inmates per 100,000 white men.
The rates were even worse for specific age ranges for Black men. Pew found that one out of every 20 Black men between the ages of 35 and 39 were in state or federal prison in 2018.