Thank you, Kevin [Perkins]. It’s good to be with you and, as always, it’s great to be in New Orleans. I want to thank Jim Letten for welcoming me back to his hometown. And I want to echo what he and Mayor Landrieu said to you all at this morning’s opening session: This conference is an important opportunity. The next few days provide the chance to build on all that’s been achieved, by the very people in this room, through Project Safe Neighborhoods.
Let me also thank our organizers for their work in developing an excellent program and bringing us all together. And, most importantly, I want to thank each of you for your participation – and for everything that you do, and all that you have sacrificed, in the name of public and community safety.
It’s fitting that we’ve gathered here in New Orleans – a city that’s defined by its resilience, its resolve and its optimism – to discuss the work and the goals that we share, the challenges that we must face, and the responsibilities that, together, we must fulfill.
This conversation, and your ongoing engagement, will be vital in assessing and advancing the progress that’s been achieved since PSN was launched in 2001. All of you – the prosecutors, the federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement officials, the community leaders and advocates gathered here – are innovators in the administration of justice. And I’m proud to count each of you as partners.
Now, nearly a decade since PSN was created, we’ve reached an important point for updating our goals, for modernizing and refocusing our strategies, and for compiling the latest and best thinking we have on the most effective, and most economically viable, ways to reduce violent crime and to build safe, vibrant and productive communities.
Our future progress, I believe, will depend on our ability to bring innovative, evidence-based solutions to the work of addressing our most overwhelming and intractable challenges – namely, the prevalence and consequences of gun-, gang-, and drug-related violence, as well as the devastating impact of childhood exposure to violence.
You understand what we’re up against – no matter where you serve. And I’m grateful that this conference brings together such diverse partners. PSN has proven that, to succeed in protecting the safety of our neighborhoods, we need a variety of perspectives; we need to test multiple strategies; and, above all, we need a comprehensive, collaborative approach.
Your commitment to this approach has paid dividends, which can be measured in real terms. Across the country, crime is down. Over the past year, violent crime has decreased by more than five percent. This reduction is proof that the federal government’s investment in PSN – which now totals more than $3 billion – has had a positive impact in communities across the country. It’s also proof that targeted support of prosecutors, investigators, training programs, juvenile crime initiatives, community outreach efforts, and other gun- and gang- violence reduction strategies works.
Although no two PSN initiatives are the same, each one has the power to bring together law enforcement strategies, community-based policing, strategic prosecution and anti-crime initiatives with the resources of social service providers, our educational system and charitable foundations. Such collaboration has helped to create peace in some of our most dangerous and divided communities. And as you’ve created new programs and field-tested new strategies, you’ve shown that – despite budget and infrastructure challenges – solutions are possible.
In cities across the country, PSN initiatives are making a difference – helping to substantially reduce gun homicides in Richmond and in Boston; to lower drug-related violent crime in High Point, North Carolina; to decrease repeat gun offenses in Chicago; to dismantle one of Washington, D.C.’s most dangerous gangs; and to decrease the threat of border-area violence perpetrated by Mexican drug cartels.
These and many other examples of progress are certainly worth celebrating. But we cannot yet be satisfied or become complacent. And we cannot ignore the unfortunate fact that threats to our people and to our neighborhoods remain a significant problem.
Yes, national violent crime rates have dipped. But there are areas where the reduction numbers we celebrate mean nothing – where children are accustomed to the sounds of gunshots; where young people are lured into gangs; where funerals outnumber weddings. In recent years, the prevalence of youth gangs in all areas, especially rural and suburban counties, has grown significantly. There are now nearly 30,000 gangs, and approximately a quarter of a million gang members, active across the country – in all 50 States, and in cities of all sizes. Since 2002, gun-related homicides have increased slightly each year, in spite of a downward trend in murders overall. Young adults – our 18- to 24-year-olds – experience homicide rates 2 ½ times higher than any other demographic. And young people in our nation’s most rural areas are now just as likely to die from gun violence as those living in our largest cities. This reminds us that gun violence is not just a big city problem; it is a concern for us all.
And while we have an important responsibility to victims, it is not just those assaulted or killed and their families who suffer. All across the country, far too many children are regularly exposed to violence. The Justice Department recently took the first comprehensive look at this problem. And the results of this National Survey on Children Exposed to Violence serve as a clear wake-up call. We found that the majority of our kids – more than 60 percent – have been exposed to crime, abuse and violence.
So how do we protect our children and our communities? How do we hold violent criminals accountable? How do we transform our most vulnerable and dangerous neighborhoods?
These questions can’t be answered easily or quickly. But finding the solutions we need begins by updating the Justice Department’s violent crime strategy – a critical initiative that’s well underway. The development of this strategy is being led by our outstanding network of U.S. Attorneys. It is focused on three key areas: enforcement, prevention, and reentry. And its success will rely on the engagement and expertise of our law enforcement partners.
In designing and implementing this strategy, what we’ve learned through Project Safe Neighborhoods will allow us to build on the progress you’ve achieved. And these lessons will help us to turn the page on our approach to combating violent crime, to taking illegal guns and lethal criminals off our streets, and to reducing gang- and drug-related activity.
First, however, we must commit to being clear about what works, to being responsive to research and analysis, and to being pragmatic in determining how and where our resources can be used most effectively.
In understanding neighborhood problems, coordinating solutions and driving a renewed focus on enforcement, prevention and reentry, no one is better equipped than our U.S. Attorneys. I am counting on each one of you – and on the teams you lead.
Many of you have already stepped up and committed to this work. And all of us must understand that – in this time of growing demands and limited budgets – we cannot afford turf battles, duplicative investigations and disconnected approaches.
As you reaffirm your commitment to cooperation, I want to pledge my full and ongoing commitment to support your work. Meeting my goals for reducing violent crime begins by listening to you, by learning from you, and by ensuring that you have the resources necessary to do your jobs well.
I realize that each one of you is being asked to do more with less, that you are facing funding cuts and difficult decisions. However, despite the financial challenges before us, we can all be encouraged that the President’s budget request reflects this administration’s commitment to sustaining and replicating successful public safety efforts. For fiscal year 2011, the Budget includes an additional $37 million to help the Justice Department provide critical resources, research and services for communities to address children’s exposure to violence. And $12 million in new funding has been requested specifically for gang and youth violence prevention efforts and programs. In the coming days, we will award close to $12 million in PSN grants. These grants, plus nearly $3 million in additional funds for training and technical assistance, will support your ongoing efforts to fight gun- and gang-related crime in your communities.
Later in this conference, you will hear from Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson and her Principal Deputy Mary Lou Leary, who will speak to you in greater detail about how the Department is working to support your efforts through our Office of Justice Programs.
Of course, money alone can’t solve the complex and widespread challenges facing our communities. To succeed in reducing violent crime, there are several key steps we must take.
First, we must call attention, not only to the symptoms, but also to the sources of violence. Robust enforcement efforts must incorporate a focus on prevention and an effort to understand the root causes of violent crime. Specifically, this means our work must expand beyond arrests and prosecutions. Although PSN has helped to secure many important convictions, it’s also shown that we can’t simply arrest our way out of the problem of violent crime. Of course, incarceration is necessary for public safety. But it’s only partially responsible for the declining crime rates we’ve seen. It’s not a sole, economically sustainable, solution.
Over the last few decades, state spending on corrections has risen faster than nearly any other budget item. Yet, at a cost of $60 billion a year, our prisons and jails do little to prepare prisoners to get jobs and “go straight” after they’re released. People who have been incarcerated are often barred from housing, shunned by potential employers and surrounded by others in similar circumstances. This is a recipe for high recidivism. And it’s the reason that two-thirds of those released are rearrested within three years. It’s time for a new approach.
As so many of you have pointed out, any real effort to contain spending on corrections, while ensuring public safety, must include a strong focus on preparing for reentry. Effective reentry programs provide our best chance for safeguarding our neighborhoods and supporting people who have served their time and are also resolved to improve their lives.
I’m proud that, last year, the Justice Department distributed $28 million in reentry awards under the Second Chance Act. And I’m pleased that we have another $100 million available for reentry programs this year. But we must complement reentry programs with smart and sound policy changes at every level of government.
That’s why I established a Sentencing and Corrections Working Group – to take a fresh look at federal sentencing practices and determine how we can better prepare federal prisoners to transition back into their communities. I am also convening an interagency working group to focus exclusively on reentry issues – everything from housing and job training needs to policy recommendations – and to enhance coordination at the federal level. But we also need more information about state and local crime trends, corrections policies, and neighborhood challenges – the insights many of you can provide.
Second, we must address the problem of violent crime holistically – by building on existing partnerships and bringing in different perspectives. Federal prosecutors must become neighborhood problem solvers, not simply case processors. They must partner with all levels of law enforcement and with all sorts of community partners. Just as surely as U.S. Attorneys, law enforcement officials and leaders across the Justice Department must come together, we must also include more community leaders, teachers, coaches, principals and – above all – parents in our work.
Finally, we must meet this problem with all the resources that sound science can bring to bear. Restoring scientific decision-making at the Justice Department is one of my highest priorities. And while research has told us much about the incidence and impact of violence, it hasn’t yet told us everything. We need more information about what works – and what doesn’t – so that we can make informed funding decisions and identify community-specific strategies.
As we take these steps and work to implement the solutions we need, there is – I believe – good cause for optimism. In fact, being with all of you today, in this great city, fills me with a sense of hope and excitement – excitement from the success you’ve achieved through Project Safe Neighborhoods, and hope for continued progress toward the goal we all share: safe, vibrant and productive communities.
I’m grateful to you all. I’m proud to count you as my colleagues. And I look forward to what we can, and will, accomplish in the days ahead for the people we serve and the communities we love.