Attorney General Merrick Garland talked a lot about the Justice Department’s “resources” during his appearance Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Congress provided the Justice Department with “critical resources” to strengthen its national security and law enforcement capacities, Garland testified in his opening statement.
But there were a number of times during the hearing when the attorney general invited the prospect of receiving more resources, which appeared to be more about funds and personnel rather than legislative tweaks, to better address matters ranging from antitrust issues and combating drug cartels trafficking fentanyl into the United States.
At one point, during an exchange with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Garland pushed back on the assertion that prosecutors are encouraged to avoid certain charges to get around certain mandatory minimum sentences approved by Congress.
“This is a question of allocating our resources and focusing them on violent crime,” Garland said. He insisted that conflicting views on policy are not to blame, but rather, “it’s a question of the resources.”
Pressed on whether this meant the Justice Department does not have enough money, Garland shared a list: “Not enough people. We don’t have enough money. We don’t have enough jails. We don’t have enough judges.”
This amounts to “cherry-picking,” Cornyn argued, a point which Garland countered by saying, “If we apply it to every single crime, we will not be able to focus our resources on violent crime, significant drug trafficking, on the cartels, on the people who are killing people with fentanyl.”
The standing policy, Garland said, is to “focus the attention of our prosecutors and agents on things that are damaging the American people in the largest possible respect.”
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The Justice Department received $38.7 billion in the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill signed by President Joe Biden in December. That commitment to the agency amounted to a 10% funding boost overall, according to Government Executive.
Throughout his testimony, Garland spoke about setting priorities, particularly in ways that would protect lives. Such a rationale was given as Garland explained how U.S. Marshals are focused on protecting U.S. Supreme Court justices and their families while GOP senators assailed the attorney general over a lack of arrests and prosecutions of protesters who appear to be in violation of an anti-picketing law.
Judiciary Committee members also confronted Garland with one glaring example of lives not being saved on a broad scale: the 108,000 fatal overdoses in one year’s time. This is a death toll surge which the Food and Drug Administration says was driven by synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and its analogs.
Garland talked at length about how stopping the flow of fentanyl into the United States is a priority, including communicating with Mexican officials for improved coordination, but he stressed this border-related issue is a “whole of government” problem.
What the Justice Department is doing to tackle the fentanyl problem is “not working,” stressed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the ranking member of the panel. “We’re going to help you if you’ll work with us to give you more tools. I hope you will meet us in the middle,” he added.
“Happy to have more tools,” Garland replied.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA), who took Kamala Harris’ California seat when she became vice president, asked Garland if the Justice Department has sufficient resources for hate crime investigations and prosecutions. The answer began with a familiar refrain.
“Obviously, if anyone wants to give me more resources in any area of the Justice Department’s responsibility, I’m happy to take them,” Garland said.