Thank you, Congressman Davis. I’m very pleased to join you and all the dedicated and hard-working people here today.
Let me begin by commending you, Congressman, for your leadership on behalf of the people of Illinois’ Seventh District and for your commitment to building strong, healthy, and safe neighborhoods. As the third-ranking official at the Department of Justice, I want you to know that we are proud to be your partner in this important work.
This work is a top priority for this Administration because even though rates of violent crime have been falling for more than a decade, and even though our economy is on the mend, we know that in cities across the country, more than 11 million of our fellow Americans are struggling to climb out of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and escape the snare of crime and violence.
They lack the resources so many others take for granted, and too often they are denied basic opportunities, like a decent education, adequate housing, and quality health care. And too often, they lack that most important resource – someone who cares.
And that is why the work that all of you do is so important. Your collaboration and cooperation across boundaries and disciplines to leverage resources and achieve problem-solving synergies is essential if we're to overcome the challenges we confront.
Persistent crime, failing schools, inadequate housing, and poor health -- these do not impact us one at a time, each separate from the other. These challenges coexist and reinforce one another. It's no coincidence that communities with high student drop-out or truancy rates also experience greater delinquency and more crime. And so our approach must be equally multi-faceted, equally comprehensive.
Now, we must acknowledge the realities of our current fiscal situation. Yet while sequestration poses real challenges and represents real limits on our financial resources, it does not limit our resolve or our commitment to strengthening our communities.
As President Obama described in his State of the Union address: ours must be a concerted effort across the federal government to build ladders of opportunity, so that all families’ hard work can lead to a decent living. The President knows that even though some cities have bounced back pretty quickly from the recession, there are neighborhoods that haven’t – and that were hurting for decades before.
And that’s why, as an Administration, we are going to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit communities in America to help get them back in the game. Across the Executive Branch, we’re going to work together to support these 20 Promise Zones, so they can again be neighborhoods where children and families thrive.
Now, we know that no one better understands the challenges of these neighborhoods than those residents who live there, which is why we are going to work in partnership with local leaders to help them achieve their goals – while asking them to target the resources at their disposal.
We’re going to continue our groundbreaking investments in school quality, with greater attention to early learning, so that when a child shows up for kindergarten, she’s ready to learn.
We’re going to help bring jobs and growth to hard-hit neighborhoods by giving tax breaks to business owners who invest and hire in those neighborhoods.
We’re going to replace run-down public housing that doesn’t offer much safety or hope with the safe, healthy housing that all families need.
And we're going to target neighborhoods that have endured cycles of violence through our Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation program at the Justice Department, and give them community-based tools that have been proven to reduce violence. We want to help local leaders who are coming together around a commitment to reducing violence – educators and enforcers; pastors and prosecutors; public health and social welfare workers – and make sure they have resource tools that have been tested successfully in other communities around the nation -- tools that we know work -- because our kids struggle to learn if they don’t feel safe; and businesses don't invest if the streets aren’t safe.
And because we know that not every community has the organization, infrastructure, or tools they need to access the help they deserve, a critical component of this effort is the support the Justice Department is providing challenged cities through its Building Neighborhood Capacity Program. That will help build the foundation some localities need in order to build structures of community success.
Before I close, I hope you’ll allow me to spend just a few moments touching on another area of mutual interest to many of you and the Department of Justice – the release and return of prison and jail inmates to our neighborhoods. At the heart of the Attorney General’s comprehensive Anti-Violence Strategy, led by our Nation’s U.S. Attorneys, to reduce and prevent crime is the “three-legged stool” of enforcement, prevention, and importantly, reentry.
Every year, some 700,000 people are released from America’s prisons, and millions more cycle through local jails. And if they’re not prepared, studies show they’re likely to re-offend and be re-arrested. In fact, the last major study of recidivism rates found that two out of every three released prisoners were re-arrested for a new offense, and about half were re-incarcerated. This has a profound impact on the communities to which these inmates return – and unfortunately, these communities often lack the resources needed to safely absorb former prisoners.
To help address this critical issue, under the Second Chance Act – which Congressman Davis has steadfastly championed— we’ve made more than 400 awards totaling over $300 million to support adult and juvenile reentry programs. These programs support substance abuse treatment, housing assistance, job training, family reunification, and a host of other services designed to help former inmates make the transition back into their communities.
We’re also addressing reentry and recidivism through a Federal Interagency Reentry Council chaired by the Attorney General. The heads of 20 agencies – including several Cabinet members – are actively involved, working to remove barriers to reentry so that motivated individuals can compete for employment, support their families, obtain stable housing, and contribute to their communities.
And all of this collaboration is paying off. Incarceration rates have begun to decline for the first time in nearly 40 years. More people are successfully completing parole and fewer are returning to prison for a new sentence or revocation. Crime rates are at their lowest levels in four decades. And some states are beginning to see reductions in their recidivism rates. So while we may not be there yet, there's no question we're moving in the right direction.
But ultimately, our success will come, not because the federal government removes red tape, or improves policy, or even provides more funding; no, our success will come because those with the greatest stake in the outcome – local leaders, community and faith groups, and citizens – they take action. Crime and economic displacement are not inevitable, but their defeat does require the vigilance that each of you has already shown – and must continue to show.
Because each time we bring opportunity to a community, we create safer streets; and with safer streets comes renewed hope; and with renewed hope comes changed lives.
Thank you for allowing me to share this day with you, and thank you for all you do on behalf of America’s communities.