News Release

John Ashcroft: His Criminal Justice Record and Views...

Washington, DC (2001, exact date unknown) -- As Governor, advocated a drug control strategy that focused law enforcement efforts on casual drug users. This strategy included treating second-time marijuana possession as a felony, automatic revocation of professional licenses for drug possession, denial of public housing eligibility, and revocation of state scholarship benefits. Governor Ashcroft’s Drug Control Strategy, Dec. 1989 (on file with NACDL).

On Drug Policy  

A St. Louis columnist had this to say about Governor Ashcroft’s drug policies: “In truth, except for the decibel level, the governor’s record on drugs has been awful. Drug treatment centers, so desperately needed to deal with the ravages of crack cocaine, have been forced to shut down because of lack of funds. Instead of treatment centers, we’ve gotten rhetoric.” Bill McClellan, Did Ashcroft’s Kin Go to Pot?, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 22, 1992, at 3A. In 1990, another Missouri newspaper reported that Missouri ranked 44th nationally in drug treatment spending per citizen. Robert Keyes, State’s Addicts Wait for Help as Agencies Fight for Funds, The News-Leader, Feb. 5, 1990.

  • Regarding federal financing for drug treatment and clean needle exchange programs for addicts, Ashcroft has said, “A government which takes the resources that we would devote toward the interdiction of drugs and converts them to treatment resources . . . and then assures citizens that if you’re involved in drugs, we’ll be there to catch you with a treatment center and also implements a clean needled program, is a government that accommodates us at our lowest and least instead of calls us to our highest and best.” Senator John Ashcroft, Calling America to Her Highest and Best, Address at the Claremont Institute (Oct. 13, 1997) (transcript on file with NACDL).
  • Sponsored legislation that dramatically lowered the amount of methamphetamine required to trigger federal mandatory minimum penalties. S. 2024, 105th Cong. (1998) (enacted). This law reduced the triggering quantities for methamphetamine mandatory sentences to those applicable to crack cocaine offenses. In terms of severity, the 7-1/2-year average sentence for methamphetamine offenses is second only to the average crack sentence. United States Sentencing Commission, 1999 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics 81.
  • Sponsored legislation that would have denied federal funding to states unless they implemented random drug tests as a condition of public assistance and sanctioned welfare recipients who tested positive for the use of illegal drugs. S. 1956, § 2902 (Amend. No. 4901), 104th Cong. (1996).

On Racial Profiling  

  • On March 30, 2000, John Ashcroft, who was then the chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Federalism and Property Rights, held hearings on racial profiling. Before the Judiciary Committee was the Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act (S. 821, 106th Cong. (1999)), a bill that would have required the Attorney General to study the practice of racial profiling and collect information from local and state agencies on traffic stops. During the hearing, John Ashcroft suggested some changes to the proposed legislation and stated, “I think that with these changes I could give my complete support to the bill.” Senator John Ashcroft, Statement before the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Federalism and Property Rights (Mar. 30, 2000), available in WESTLAW, CONGTMY, 2000 WL 19303021. Despite these words and despite agreement by the bill’s sponsors to Senator Ashcroft’s amendments, he failed to seek Judiciary Committee markup and full Senate consideration of the bill.

On the Death Penalty  

  • As Attorney General of Missouri, fought to reinstate the death penalty and, as Governor, oversaw Missouri’s first execution in 24 years. Ashcroft Favors Valid Death Law, Springfield Daily News, Jan. 28, 1977;
  • In a 1983 Op-Ed, then-Attorney General Ashcroft wrote, “The claim advanced by some death penalty opponents that an innocent person might be executed ignores the realities of the capital sentencing process. . . . As a practical matter, juries have been unwilling to impose the death penalty except in cases where the evidence of guilt is truly overwhelming, well beyond the reasonable doubt standard. . . . I find it significant that death penalty abolitionists have never been able to cite for me a single case in the history of the United States in which an innocent person has been executed. . . .” John Ashcroft, [title unavailable], Missouri Times, Aug. 29, 1983. In fact, juries in Missouri have incorrectly found guilt in at least two capital cases, although both prisoners fortunately escaped execution. 
  • In the face of a Department of Justice report indicating significant racial and geographic disparities in administration of the federal death penalty, John Ashcroft sees no reason for a moratorium on the federal death penalty. Dan Eggen, Conservatives Get Champion at Justice, Wash. Post, Dec. 23, 2000, at A1. In light of the DOJ report, President Clinton, also a death penalty supporter, ordered a stay of the first federal execution in almost thirty-eight years. Edward Walsh, Clinton Stays Killer’s Execution, Wash. Post., Dec 8, 2000, at A12.
  • As Governor, asked Congress to make the death penalty available in federal prosecutions of drug dealers. Joan Little, Ashcroft Drug Plan Seeks Use of Wiretaps, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 17, 1988, at 1.
  • Used the death penalty for political gain in opposing federal judicial nominee Ronnie White, the first black to serve on the Missouri Supreme Court. In an apparent attempt to position himself as an fervent death penalty supporter, Ashcroft delayed and ultimately defeated White’s appointment on the asserted ground that White was “pro-criminal and activist” as shown by his “poor record on the death penalty.” In fact, White had upheld 70 percent of the death sentences before him, not far off the 75 percent to 81 percent averages for the Ashcroft appointees on the bench and well above the 53 percent average for the Ashcroft appointee he replaced. Stuart Taylor, Jr., The Shame of the Ronnie White Vote, National Journal, Oct. 18, 1999.

On Juvenile Justice  

  • Adult Trials: Repeatedly sponsored juvenile justice legislation whereby states seeking federal funds for juvenile justice enforcement and federal prosecutors would be required to prosecute juveniles who are 14 years of age as adults in criminal court, rather than in juvenile delinquency proceedings, for certain drug and violent offenses. S. 538, 106th Cong. (1999); S. 1245, 104th Cong. (1995); S. 1845, 104th Cong. (1996) (requiring open-court adult trials for 13-year-old juveniles charged with for certain felonies).
  • Adult Sentences: Sponsored legislation which would have extended mandatory minimum sentences to juveniles age 14 and older, S. 825, 105th Cong. (1997), and legislation which would have reduced the age for application of the death penalty from 18 to 16, S. 1845, 104th Cong. (1996).
  • More Prisons, Fewer Protections: Proposed amendments, in the above-cited legislation, to existing laws that would have weakened protection for children incarcerated with adults in jails; compromised the confidentiality of juvenile records and proceedings involving juveniles; and eliminated juvenile treatment and prevention programs in favor of increased spending on state juvenile prisons and construction of the first federal juvenile prisons.

On the Federalization of Crime  

  • Contrary to reports that Ashcroft holds staunchly conservative views on federalism, he sponsored legislation to expand the federal stalking law, diverting federal law enforcement resources to an essentially local crime. S. 2011, 106th Cong. (2000).
  • Ashcroft’s proposed juvenile justice legislation is another example of federal overreaching into an area traditionally reserved to the states.

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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.