Department of Justice Seal

Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
Defense Research Institute
Washington Hilton, Washington, DC
October 16, 2003

(Please Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates From Prepared Remarks)

Thank you, Perry [Brandt], for that kind introduction. I have enjoyed the time I have spent with you and your wife, Liz.

It is a pleasure to join you here. While I am pleased that all of you ventured to Washington, it is comforting to know that the Defense Research Institute is based in America's heartland in Chicago. Perhaps given what happened to the Cubs last night, I should say, "broken-heartland."

Obviously, there are a number of issues inside the Beltway critical to the work you do. But the genius of our American system of government is that we believe that it is the people who grant the government its powers. We believe that it is the people's values that should be imposed on Washington-not Washington's values on the people. I thank you for being here.

That said, I am here with good news and bad news.

The good news is that crime in the United States is at an historic thirty-year low.

The bad news is that the new low in crime means all those under-employed criminal defense attorneys may start encroaching on your civil defense work.

I hesitated to bring up the good news on crime before an audience of lawyers. But then I thought, the worst thing you could do was sue me. And I know DRI members would not waste their time on such a frivolous suit.

These really are good days for justice.

America is more secure today than it was two years ago.
America is safer today than it was two years ago.
America is freer today than at any time in the history of human freedom.

The facts speak for themselves.

Fact number one: In the past two years, no major terrorist attack has been perpetrated on our soil. America's citizens are safe, and America's liberties are secure.

Fact number two: Our nation's overall crime rate today has been driven to a thirty-year low.

Stop for a moment and consider what it means to say that crime is at its lowest point in thirty years.

It means that in the last two years, rapes and sexual assaults are down 25 percent.

It means that in the last two years, attempted theft is down 22 percent.

Assaults are down 20 percent, and

Robberies are down 27 percent.

We celebrate this achievement because behind these statistics are human lives - almost a million last year alone. These are innocent men, women and children who today live free from fear and victimization.

People are not just safer on the streets because violent crime is at an historic low, they are safer in their homes as well.

Attempted forcible entry is down 20 percent. Overall crimes against property are down 13 percent.

And not just some Americans, but all Americans are safer today than they were two years ago. The violent crime victimization rate has fallen for all racial and ethnic groups, across all income levels, and in every part of the country.

How we achieved this 30-year low in crime reminds me of the story of the kindergarten class on a field trip to a local police station. One of the kids sees on the wall mugshots of the city's "Ten Most Wanted" crooks. The boy asks if they are really photos of criminals.

"Yes," says a policeman. "We want to catch them very badly."

The boy asks, "So, why didn't you keep them when you took their picture?"

Our crime-fighting strategy is built on the simple but powerful truth a kindergartner can understand: crime is prevented when career criminals are taken off the streets.

Three tactics - tough penalties, effective tools and widespread cooperation - are the cornerstones of our strategy to prevent crime and terrorism.

First, tough penalties. Two years ago, President Bush made a commitment to reduce gun crime by getting gun criminals off the streets with Project Safe Neighborhoods.

In two years of Project Safe Neighborhood's existence, the incidence of gun crimes has dropped 32 percent. Thirty-two percent!

Last year, just seven percent of violent crimes were committed with a firearm. This is the lowest number. Ever.

At the same time that gun crime has dropped by 32 percent, federal gun prosecutions have increased 36 percent. Call it a coincidence if you like, but I call it something else: a gun-crime prevention strategy that works.

We must keep up the pressure across America. It is time to stop the revolving-door that puts armed repeat offenders back on the street. We must lock up predators by enforcing gun laws aggressively, while we protect the individual constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans to bear arms under the Second Amendment.

Our second tactic is the utilization of effective tools.

In the days after September 11, we did not have to look far to find investigative tactics to prevent additional acts of terrorism. The answer was simple: use the same tools to prevent terrorism that we use to prevent other crimes.

For example, for years we have used roving wiretaps in organized crime and drug cases. If a drug trafficker is working on a big haul of contraband and moves from his home phone to his office phone and then to his cell phone, the FBI can use the same wiretap to listen to all his conversations, instead of having to get a warrant for each phone the trafficker is using.

If tools like this work against gangsters, drug king pins and murderers, then why shouldn't we use them against terrorists?

We should. And that is why Congress passed the PATRIOT Act by a wide, bipartisan margin. It gives law enforcement the same tools and the same capabilities to prevent terrorism that we have used to combat other forms of crime.

The lives and liberties of Americans are PROTECTED by the PATRIOT Act. With the effective tools provided by Congress in the PATRIOT Act, we have dismantled terrorist cells in New York, Michigan, Washington State, Oregon and North Carolina. We have brought criminal charges against 284 individuals. 150 have been convicted or pled guilty, including shoe bomber Richard Reid and American Taliban John Walker Lindh.

All told, two-thirds of al Qaeda's leadership worldwide is either in custody or dead.

We are using proven crime-fighting tools to WIN the war against terrorism, while protecting our Constitutional rights. We are preserving lives and liberty.

The third tactic in achieving this historic, 30-year low in crime is the rising tide of cooperation between citizens and law enforcement.

More Americans are reporting crimes than ever before. That cooperation has allowed us to build strong teams dedicated to the prevention of crime and terrorism.

For example, a year ago, the Justice Department and the National Sheriff's Association promised to double the number of National Neighborhood Watch programs across the country. Then, we had 7,500 Neighborhood Watch programs. Today, we have more than 14,500, and we will shortly reach our goal.

With the help of citizens, law enforcement can focus on practicing the successful crime-prevention tactics that have helped us reach an historic 30-year low in crime.

Now, the justice we have achieved in terrorism and criminal cases must be extended to civil cases.

There is something wrong with a legal system when it is easier to sue a doctor than it is to see a doctor.

There is something wrong with a legal system when people can sue because they worked up an appetite instead of just worked out.

And there is definitely something wrong with a legal system when class action awards and settlements give lawyers lotto-size payouts, leaving pennies for real victims.

We have heard all the stories.

The Blockbuster Video case. Attorneys took home nine million dollars in fees, while customers got a coupon for future video rentals.

The Cheerios case. Lawyers were paid nearly two million in fees. The customers got coupons for a free box of cereal.

Then, there is the Bank of Boston case. In that settlement, each class member got about eight dollars. But each plaintiff also had to pay an average of eighty one dollars to cover legal costs. You do not a math degree to figure out who came out ahead here.

The Bush Administration has been working with Congress to reform a legal environment that is out of balance.

Due to the efforts of this Administration, and by groups like yours, Congress came closer than ever to passing a medical malpractice reform bill, and we will continue to fight.

We have a medical liability system that is fueling skyrocketing insurance premiums and system costs. We need a justice system that weeds out junk lawsuits, while ensuring that patient rights and physician rights are protected.

In the area of class action lawsuits, the House of Representatives recently passed the Class Action Fairness Act, and the Senate will take up that legislation shortly. It cannot come soon enough. The abuse of this legal tool must end.

We must make the class action process fairer. By expanding federal jurisdiction for class actions that truly have a multi-state impact, the Class Action Fairness Act will reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits.

Also, by channeling multi-state class action litigation into federal courts, the Act will allow the Judicial Panel on Multi-district Litigation to bring together in a single court all class actions involving the same claims for consolidated pretrial proceedings. This will save all parties money and time during discovery, while also conserving federal judicial resources.

The Act will help prevent venue shopping by those who seek nothing more than a jurisdictional jackpot. It will help clean up a system that has cost our nation jobs, bankrupted businesses, and gouged consumers.

Most important, it will reinforce the faith our citizens have in our system of justice and the rule of law.

Thanks in no small part to the efforts of many individuals and many organizations like DRI, we are making some serious headway in shaping true civil-justice reform.

I want to thank you for your support. Your efforts in this area are helping to shape a more just legal community.

These are good days for justice, but they can be better still.

In 1847, at a gathering of lawyers in Charleston, South Carolina, Daniel Webster raised his glass in a toast.

"To the law," Webster said. "It has honored us; may we honor it."

As we look forward to working together in the service of the nation's laws, let us offer a similar tribute to the citizens who look to us to help protect their rights and freedoms. They have honored us with their trust. May we honor them with justice.

Thank you very much.