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Criminal Justice Reformer Vanita Gupta Just Got Way More Powerful

At a time when voting rights are threatened, schools are segregated, and police seem to be doing whatever they feel like to people of color, the appointment of a star reformer to head up the Justice Department's civil rights division offers some hope.

by Matt Taylor
Oct 16 2014, 2:30pm

ACLU lawyer Vanita Gupta has a fancy new gig. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

These days, it's almost routine to see minority voting rights threatened in states like Georgia and Michigan, and it's also depressingly common for young, unarmed people of color to be killed by police in cities like New York and Ferguson. Blacks are 21 times as likely as whites to be shot by cops, and large swaths of America's school system have essentially been resegregated. But the civil rights division of the US Justice Department has lacked a leader for more than a year, a glaring vacancy that's made it awfully difficult to see light at the end of this tunnel of misery.

Enter Vanita Gupta, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder just appointed to head up the civil rights division, which he likes to call the "crown jewel" of the Justice Department. A major player in the prison and criminal justice reform movements, Gupta is the rare advocate who doesn't inspire venom from the right—in fact, she's earned plaudits from conservative icons like anti-tax king Grover Norquist and David Keene, former head of the National Rifle Association. That sets her up to potentially lead the Obama administration on issues like mass incarceration, police militarization, ballot access, and civil asset forfeiture, assuming she gets confirmed to stay on the job.

"This is an absolutely brilliant young woman," New York University Law School professor Claudia Angelos, who's taught with Gupta, told me. "She is a dedicated advocate for racial equality—that has been her life's work thus far. Her record speaks for itself."

After graduating from law school in 2001, Gupta worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she intervened in a wild case that saw over a tenth of the black population of a Texas town get wrongly pinched in a drug bust. More noteworthy to the war on drugs reform crowd is that Gupta has (very recently) expressed support for marijuana legalization, a stance advocates hope will penetrate the top rungs of the American power structure by the time Obama and his administration finally call it quits in 2017.

"Having someone who believes that marijuana legalization is a social justice issue serving as the chief civil rights official in the Justice Department will be simply game-changing," according to Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority, a legalization advocacy group. "Hopefully she can convince the next attorney general to initiate the process of rescheduling marijuana under federal law."

Now Gupta won't just be making noise about the racial component to the war on drugs—she'll have the power to intervene. Then again, with so many prosecutors around the country still wedded, for economic reasons as well as moral ones, to a lock-them-up mentality, the challenge will be in disseminating her philosophy and choosing her battles.

Perhaps most important after the killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown this summer—and the spectacular police overreaction to protests that followed—is that Gupta has been vocal about what went wrong, and how we might go about fixing it.

"What Ferguson has laid bare is something that communities of color, kind of at the target of the war on drugs, have known for the last several decades: that policing in their communities is often highly militarized," she said in a recent radio interview. "The question will be that once the cameras leave Ferguson, once the Ferguson hashtag is no longer trending on Twitter, is there going to be the political will and resolve to actually address what has been a very alarming situation in local and state police departments around the country. Because there's no question that this has really gone out of control."

This matters because the Justice Department's civil rights division has mounted a probe of the Ferguson police department and its practices. Of course, it remains to be seen if Gupta will go after some of the larger police departments, like New York's, that continue to conduct systematic surveillance of Muslim citizens and disproportionately target people of color for quality-of-life offenses.

Still, there's plenty of room for optimism here. Gupta has shown she can get Republicans to play ball, which has been essential to pushing forward the broader criminal justice reform project in the Obama era. And the rollbacks of mandatory minimum sentences (Gupta wants to scrap them entirely), along with the broader shift in how the feds have dealt with low-level drug offenses, speak to her ability to produce change.

"The needle has moved in no small measure because of her influence," Angelos told me.

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.