Thank you, Regina, for that introduction. The theme of this year’s commemoration, “Strength in Unity,” recognizes that when the many voices in the victims’ rights community speak together they can make a difference.
I am honored to be with you again this year. This issue has been important to me for many years. As legal counselor to then-Governor Bush, I heard from victims and their families whenever clemency appeals reached the Governor. My wife Rebecca worked on sexual assault programs in the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Together, Becky and I have met with hundreds of crime victims. We have heard their stories—your stories—which have further inspired me to work hard as your Attorney General to protect your rights. We are all partners together in a common struggle.
You have taken the pain and trauma of crime and used it to spread a message of justice, hope, and compassion, to others who have been victimized. Indeed, the victims’ rights movement affirms humanity at its most compassionate.
As in our ceremony last night, rather than hiding in the darkness, you have each lit a candle of hope and perseverance.
We also heard powerful testimony from Sharon Rocha, who gave us a moving account of the toll that violent crime takes on a family. This afternoon we honor her and others who inspire many Americans and especially us at the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice is privileged to be a partner with the victims’ rights community.
Last May I issued updated Guidelines for Victim and Witness Assistance for the Department. As I said when these Guidelines were published, the Department of Justice must “minimize the frustration and confusion that victims of a crime endure in its wake.”
With these new Guidelines, federal law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and victim-witness assistants now have even clearer policies and procedures to ensure that they respect the rights and needs of victims in every stage of their work, from initial investigation, to prosecution, to sentencing of the offender.
These Guidelines will help to ensure that the Department is a partner on the road to recovery for each and every victim of crime. The Guidelines reflect the expanded rights of victims as set forth in the Justice for All Act, including the right to attend public proceedings in the case and the right to speak at sentencing hearings. They also include new instructions to assist victims of our most difficult cases: terrorist attacks, human trafficking, identity theft, and domestic violence.
I have also asked all the employees of the Department to consider victims’ rights in formulating the policies of the Department. This includes policies in which victims’ rights groups may not traditionally have been involved.
For instance, to further secure justice for victims, we have pressed for the reestablishment of mandatory minimum sentencing in order to guarantee that criminals across the country receive a baseline punishment no matter who the victim, or where the crime occurs.
In addition, earlier this year I appointed the Department’s first Victims’ Rights Ombudsman, who is tasked with making sure that victims’ voices are heard and respected by every employee in the entire Department.
Finally, this year we are awarding $551 million to support victim assistance programs, including services and basic needs such as crisis intervention, counseling, and emergency shelter through the Crime Victims Fund.
Our work in Washington is important, but we couldn’t do it without the help of citizens across the country. In many ways, their work—your work—is even more important than our own, as we see from this year’s extraordinary award recipients.
They have demonstrated an inner strength that has helped so many others. The assaults on them could easily have driven them into society’s shadows. Instead, they faced up to their assailants and pursued justice. Other recipients assisted victims who survived muffled beatings behind closed doors or the roaring explosions of 9/11.
They sought to repair the damage created by the rapist, the child abuser, the human trafficker, and all others who prey on the vulnerable in our society. One recipient acted to ensure child victims are treated with dignity and special care by medical personnel, so that they are not re-traumatized by the very people trying to help them.
Recipients prodded our lawmakers to make first responder, health care, and legal aid more available. Others increased efforts to collect criminal debts to provide more restitution to victims. All are committed to an inspiring care for the victims of calculated evil.
Putting the focus on victims is one of the great legacies of Ronald Reagan, and the reason for the Crime Victims’ Rights Week that he created 25 years ago. Today, we recognize those who have developed policies that have benefited crime victims by establishing the annual Ronald Wilson Reagan Public Policy Award.
But what we may best remember rather than any specific policy is how that President kept us steady after his own experience as a shooting victim. In the same way, faced with personal tragedy, many of you have showed others how to live a life of hope, dignity, and purpose.
With this goal, our awardees are making sure victims’ rights are understood in law enforcement, social services, and the greater public. Whether counseling abuse victims based on their own experience or educating policy-makers, they all advance the cause of victims’ rights and affirm the highest qualities of our humanity.
You will shortly see videos powerfully illustrating this message of sacrifice and service.
Given the Department’s priority of preventing another terrorist attack, I must say a few words about the flight crew of hijacked Pan Am flight 73 and the Pan Am director on the ground in Pakistan. Their calm determination 20 years ago showed the world the difference between humanity and barbarism. I thank so many of them for coming from half the world away to be with us.
Thanks to all of you honorees for daring to be on the cutting-edge of a social and legal justice movement that is rooted in the American tradition of compassion and common sense. Let us continue to work together to make a difference in the lives of victims. May God bless you all. May He continue to comfort the victims of crime and their families. And may He continue to bless the United States of America.