Thank you, John [Bouman]. It is a pleasure to be with you and to be among so many friends. And while I appreciate your very kind words, tonight I am most grateful for the opportunity to celebrate the work that you and Stu [Cohen] – and the Shriver Center’s staff, Board of Directors, and many supporters – are leading.
Your efforts have helped to establish the Shriver Center as the authoritative international resource center on poverty law – and as a powerful voice for the most vulnerable among us. For more than three decades, you’ve fought to protect the rights and best interests of Americans in need and at risk. You’ve found innovative ways to bring legal assistance to those struggling to access our justice system and vindicate their rights. And you’ve made meaningful progress in fulfilling Sargent Shriver’s vision of a more just, and more inclusive, society.
On behalf of our nation’s Department of Justice, I am grateful, and proud, to count you all as partners. I want to thank each of you for the service that you provide and inspire, and the difference that you are making across Chicago – and far beyond this beautiful city.
I also want to thank you all for this wonderful award. I am honored to be included among its distinguished recipients and to be associated with this Center’s – and this award’s – namesake.
Although I’m sorry that Sargent Shriver can’t be here with us, it is his life’s work that we honor and recommit ourselves to this evening.
Forty-seven years ago this week, as our nation struggled to overcome new threats and long-standing divisions, Sargent Shriver assured the American people that, “Deeply committed individuals, prepared to work and sacrifice, can have a profound impact on the most difficult and intransigent of problems.” In the intervening decades, much progress has been made in addressing difficult and intransigent problems. But as I reflect on these words – and raise them to all of you - I am acutely aware of how much more that we, as a nation, have to do.
For today’s Justice Department, that work is well underway in the Civil Rights Division, a place of special importance to many of you. I am proud to report that, over the past 20 months, this division has reaffirmed its role as the conscience of the Department and as America’s finest civil rights enforcement agency. This, I believe, is just as Sargent Shriver and his brother-in-law, my predecessor Attorney General Robert Kennedy, would want it.
Of course, there is still work to be done. There are still injustices to be prosecuted and problems to be remedied. But our vigorous enforcement efforts are having a powerful and positive impact in safeguarding the rights of disabled Americans, institutionalized persons, voters, veterans, workers, and students, and service members. We are ensuring that education and job opportunities, as well as the religious freedoms of all our citizens, are protected. And we’re making extraordinary progress – through suits in Chicago and far beyond – in combating human trafficking, promoting fairness in our housing and lending markets, and protecting civil rights in our board rooms, in our voting booths, and along our borders.
In fact, in fiscal year 2009, the Justice Department set a record for the most criminal civil rights cases filed in history. Then, in fiscal year 2010, we exceeded that record.
Part of that work has focused on addressing the growing and alarming problem of hate crimes. Last year, leaders across the Department worked tirelessly to advance the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act – one of the most significant new pieces of civil rights legislation enacted in decades. Today, our prosecutors are actively enforcing this law and utilizing the new tools it provides.
Although civil rights violations are not limited to any one socioeconomic, racial, or geographic group – as many of you have pointed out – the poorest among us often suffer the most. But through several new initiatives, the Justice Department is working to remedy this. We have launched, for example, a new fair lending unit, and we held our first fair lending summit here in Chicago earlier this year. I’m pleased to report that we also recently obtained the largest fair lending settlement in the Department’s history.
We have launched and strengthened partnerships with leaders across the administration – and with local, state, and federal law enforcement officials – to ensure fairness in our housing and lending markets, as well as our health-care, corrections, and education systems.
Here in Chicago, the importance of these partnerships is clear. As many of you know, one year ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and I traveled here together following the horrific beating of 16-year-old Derrion Albert. Derrion was one of forty Chicago public high school students killed last year. His fatal attack – captured on video for the world to see – was a wake-up call for our country, and for many of the citizens and communities you serve.
A year later, the challenge persists. Just last month, a student was killed on the second day of class. This is unacceptable. And, for this group – leaders who refuse to turn a blind eye to injustice or ignore the suffering of others – it is cause for action. It is yet another reason to consider the connections between public safety, youth violence, educational opportunities, and poverty.
Earlier today, when I met with Chicago’s interagency delegation to our National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, I had the chance to discuss some of the concerns we all share. And I learned about some of the local youth violence challenges you’re confronting.
Across this city, and beyond, childhood exposure to violence is a growing problem – a problem that is also an issue of social justice. That’s why, several weeks ago, the Justice Department launched a new Defending Childhood initiative aimed at preventing children’s exposure to violence – whether they’re perpetrators, observers, or victims – and mitigating the negative effects of violence. By renewing and refocusing our efforts to serve our nation’s most vulnerable, most distressed – and, often, poorest – children, I believe we can improve the country we love for the better, one child at a time.
In addition to this work, I would like to tell you about another new Department initiative that is helping to strengthen our communities and serve those who need, and deserve, the assistance and guidance that lawyers can provide.
Helping to ensure the promise of “equal justice for all” is one of the Department’s most critical, and fundamental, obligations. Many of you have devoted your lives to this work. And you know just how much remains to be done. Today, the current deficiencies in our indigent defense system and the gaps in legal services for the poor and middle class, constitute not just a problem, but a crisis. And this crisis appears as “difficult and intransigent” as any now before us. Some public defenders’ offices are so underfunded and understaffed that the average caseload, for just one attorney, can range from 500 to 900 felony cases and more than 2,000 misdemeanor cases per year. That’s over five times the ceilings set by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice.
The state of affairs in civil matters is no less unconscionable. These cases may not result in jail time, but given the possibilities of deportation, loss of child custody, and eviction, they can disrupt and devastate lives. Yet, across our country, those who can’t afford counsel in such proceedings are not entitled to be represented at the public’s expense. And, unfortunately, lifelines such as the Legal Services Corporation, and many of the legal aid programs it supports, are vastly underfunded.
These are systemic problems. And they call for reinvention – not merely reform. That’s why the Department has made an historic and permanent commitment to expanding and ensuring access to legal services. This spring, we established a new Access to Justice Office – led by one of our nation’s most renowned Constitutional law scholars, Larry Tribe.
Through this landmark initiative, we are working to ensure that quality legal representation is available and accessible to all indigent defendants. In cities from Chicago to New Orleans, we’re encouraging comprehensive planning and reform, increasing training and technical assistance for defender programs, supporting Tribal Courts, and improving the juvenile justice system.
Meanwhile, we are enhancing civil legal representation for both the middle class and the poor by working to strengthen the Legal Services Corporation. We’re also encouraging the establishment of more statewide Access to Justice commissions; engaging the pro bono bar; expanding access to domestic violence, wage theft, foreclosure, and child dependency case programs; and working to reform legal education so that more students can learn from and contribute to these efforts.
And wherever possible, we are promoting solutions outside of our courtrooms. Here in Chicago, for example, we’re preparing to work with a group of partners – including the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, the Chicago Council of Lawyers, the Chicago Police Department, the Office of the State Attorney, and other key criminal justice system stakeholders – to implement a deferral program for first-time, non-violent drug offenders. We can all be encouraged by this kind of innovation – and by this level of collaboration.
While I’m pleased that we are moving forward on many fronts, I also recognize that – in some cases – it feels as if we’ve set out toward a destination, while the roadmap is still in development.
But the urgency of today’s challenges demands that we forge ahead anyway – just as Sargent Shriver advised in 1964, while discussing national efforts to combat poverty and injustice.
“We do not yet know all that needs to be known about the job ahead…but we are going to get there,” he said. “By trial and error…we are going to find out.”
Although nearly half a century has passed, this work continues. The struggle against poverty and injustice endures. But, fortunately, our approach has changed. Now, we are supplementing trial and error with sound science. To date, and for far too long, scientific study of our criminal justice system has been insufficient. But we are working to correct this. And today’s Justice Department is committed to conducting the research and analysis necessary to allow for improved, evidence-based decisions at every level.
I have no doubt that, by bringing more science into our work, we’ll be able to build on the progress that’s been made – and find the answers and solutions that we need.
Of course, the world cannot be, as Sargent Shriver often reminded us, changed overnight. But in the work of ensuring civil rights and equal justice, the progress we seek is not beyond our reach. It is not beyond our capabilities. It is not beyond our lifetimes. This is clear, already, in the ways that we are repositioning the legal profession and redefining the obligations that lawyers have to our society. And evenings like this one – and the chance to stand with so many dedicated, talented, and motivated partners – make me especially optimistic about what can, and will, be accomplished.
Like Sargent Shriver, we must believe in the promise of this country, in the power of the individual, and in the possibility of committed, coordinated action. As we continue to chart our course, we are guided by the leadership of the Shriver Center, encouraged by the work of the Justice Department, and inspired by the individual contributions – and joint efforts – of so many partners in and beyond this room.
In the critical days ahead, let us keep moving forward. Let us seize this precious moment. Let us take our work to a new level. Let us create a stronger, better, more just, and – ultimately – more perfect union.
Thank you all.