Thank you, Reverend [Al] Sharpton – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to be back home in New York City. And it’s a tremendous honor to join the National Action Network – once again – in helping to open your important Annual Convention; in rallying a new generation of leaders and advocates to the cause of civil rights; and in celebrating the memory, and the living legacy, of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – who was taken from us 46 years ago last week.
Every April, our nation pauses to mark the contributions, and the profound sacrifices, of this extraordinary leader. Dr. King dedicated his career to the service of others. And he gave his life in the work of building the “beloved community” – and the more just society – that remain our common pursuit. Each year, I am reminded of the enduring wisdom of Dr. King’s words – and the shining example of his deeds – as contemporary leaders come together at forums like this one not merely to honor him, and so many others who have gone before – but to confront the challenges of our time.
Some of these challenges are born of new realities and circumstances. Others stem from questions and debates as old our Republic itself. But all are the province of organizations like the National Action Network – and the responsibility of every citizen to address and overcome.
For more than 20 years, this group has brought together passionate men and women to do just that. You’re striving to ensure that every eligible American has access to the ballot box – and a voice in the process of self-government. You’re seeking safer streets and stronger neighborhoods for our children and families. And you’re encouraging young people to get on the right path so they can contribute to this country, provide for themselves, and build the brighter future they need and deserve.
In these efforts and many others, the National Action Network stands today as a driving force in our ongoing struggle to ensure that every community – and every person – has the opportunity, as Dr. King once said, “to apply [their] citizenship to the fullness of its meaning.” This is a mission – and a moral imperative – that we share. And since the day I became Attorney General in 2009, I have been proud to stand alongside you in supporting efforts to advance the cause of justice that has always been at the center of this Administration’s work.
I’m pleased to note that the last five years have been defined by significant strides and lasting reforms – even in the face of unprecedented adversity. Last summer, after a narrowly split but divided Supreme Court struck down a key part of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, my colleagues and I took action – by challenging specific laws, in North Carolina and Texas, that could disproportionately restrict access to the ballot box among some populations. Let me be very clear: protecting the right to vote – the action that truly makes our nation an exceptional one – will continue to be a priority for this Administration, for this Department of Justice, for this President, and for this Attorney General. We stand ready to assist Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle as they seek to fill the void left by the Supreme Court’s ruling and help safeguard that most basic right of American citizenship. And we’re bolstering our across-the-board civil rights enforcement efforts to ensure that our work is as strong – and as effective – today as ever before.
Over the past three years, the Department’s Civil Rights Division has filed more criminal civil rights cases than during any other period in its history – including record numbers of hate crimes cases. Across the country, we are partnering with local authorities, community leaders, and others to make good on our commitment to equal justice. We continue to ensure that all students have access to educational opportunities free from discrimination. Just yesterday, the Department won a court order rejecting a bid by the State of Louisiana to resist providing even the most basic information about how the State’s voucher program will affect school desegregation efforts. This ruling ought to resolve, once and for all, the unnecessary dispute initiated by the state’s refusal to provide data. And we’re providing vital support for programs that offer quality legal representation to those who cannot afford it, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright – a landmark ruling, handed down just over half a century ago, which held that every defendant facing imprisonment has the right to an attorney.
In so many ways, today’s Department of Justice is renewing its obligation to deliver fair outcomes and ensure due process for everyone in this country – no matter who they are, where they’re from, or how much they make. But we’re also asking larger questions about the mechanisms of our criminal justice system as a whole. And, where appropriate, we’re exploring ways to recalibrate this system to make it as fair and effective as possible.
As it stands – in far too many places – a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps individuals, devastates families, and weakens communities. It is long past time for us to break this cycle.
Last August, based on the results of a targeted Justice Department review of America’s criminal justice system, I launched a new “Smart on Crime” initiative – predicated on comprehensive, evidence-based strategies that are proven to ensure public safety, and dedicated to the work we must do together to forge a more just society. Our prosecutors and law enforcement agents have always been dedicated to the mission of combating crime, but the expanding size of our prison population – and the costs that such incarceration rates exert on our communities and our budget – called on us to examine some of the tools and strategies we use. Under this initiative, we have modified the Department’s charging policies so that defendants accused of certain nonviolent, low-level federal drug crimes will face sentences appropriate to their individual conduct, rather than stringent mandatory minimums, which will now be reserved for the most serious criminals. We are increasing our emphasis on innovative diversion programs like community service initiatives that can serve as alternatives to incarceration. And we are investing in drug treatment and reentry programs that can enable formerly incarcerated individuals to acquire the tools and skills they need to become productive members of society.
Many of these commonsense steps are already showing great promise when it comes to strengthening communities, improving public safety, and making America’s criminal justice expenditures more effective. But these actions and programs are only the beginning – because growing both tougher and smarter on crime also means rejecting any practice or policy that undermines sound law enforcement, erodes trust in our most treasured institutions, or impedes our impartial and aggressive enforcement of the nation’s laws.
It is important that every community we serve must know – and see – that we are committed to the impartial and aggressive enforcement of our laws – and the unbiased protection of everyone in this country. This simple promise – of equality under the law – is our most solemn responsibility.
So I want to be very clear: racial profiling is wrong. It undermines the trust and confidence that people should have in our law enforcement system. It runs contrary to our most treasured values. It is ineffective in the pursuit of justice. And it is counterproductive as a policing tool – because it can leave a lasting scar on individuals and on communities.
Decades ago, the reality of racial profiling drove my father to sit down and talk with me about how – as a young black man – I should interact with the police if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I felt was unwarranted. This conversation is no doubt familiar to many of you. And it’s one that has stayed with me throughout the course of my life.
I thought of my father’s words years later, when – as a college student – I was pulled over twice on the New Jersey turnpike and my car was searched – even though I was sure I hadn’t been speeding. I thought of them again some time after that, when a police officer stopped and questioned me in Washington while I was running to catch a movie – even though I happened to be a federal prosecutor at the time. And I couldn’t help but think of my father just a couple of years ago when I sat down to convey the same message to my own teenage son after the shooting of Trayvon Martin – a conversation I hoped I’d never have to have.
A substantial body of research tells us that – when those who come into contact with the police feel that they are treated fairly, they are more likely to accept decisions by the authorities, obey the law, and cooperate with law enforcement in the future – even if they disagree with specific outcomes. This is because compliance with the law begins not with the fear of arrest or even incarceration, but with respect for the institutions that guide our democracy. Protecting public safety and protecting our civil rights are not mutually exclusive goals – and we must do both with vigor and diligence. We are committed to the principle of unbiased policing, and are working to ensure that guidance we have on this issue aligns with this principle.
Across the nation, the Department, its prosecutors, and its law enforcement agents are taking a variety of steps to bolster community outreach – because we understand that effective policing demands broad engagement. And we will never stand idly by as isolated acts of discrimination tarnish the outstanding and unbiased work that’s performed every day by the overwhelming majority of America’s law enforcement officers.
Many law enforcement leaders have proven their firm commitment to building trust and engagement by involving their fellow citizens in the process of establishing norms of behavior; by setting clear standards for right and wrong; and by bringing community members and law enforcement together with the explicit aim of relegating the era of suspicion and distrust to the past. In my travels throughout the country, I’ve been encouraged to see that more and more departments and agencies are applying groundbreaking research – in procedural justice, implicit bias, and truth-telling – to the jurisdictions they serve. The Justice Department is proud to support this work through our COPS Office and the Office of Justice Programs. Last Friday, right here in New York, the COPS Office convened a groundbreaking forum to bring together law enforcement, civil rights groups, and communities of color – and Associate Attorney General Tony West announced the creation of a new National Center for Building Community Trust and Justice. Going forward, this Center will enable us to explore, advance, assess, and disseminate information about strategies intended to enhance procedural justice, reduce implicit bias, and strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. Coupled with the Administration’s broader work under the President’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative – to support boys and young men of color from coast to coast – these collaborative efforts are showing tremendous promise.
In the days ahead, the Justice Department will also do everything in its power to confront the unwarranted disparities faced by too many African-American and Latino defendants after they become involved with our criminal justice system. We’ve seen all too clearly that – once they’ve been convicted of crimes – people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers. I was particularly troubled by a report released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission last February, which indicated that – in recent years – African American men have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. Another report showed that American Indians are often sentenced even more harshly. And as I’ve said before, such outcomes are not only shameful and unacceptable – they impede our ability to see that justice is done.
In response, last year, I directed a group of United States Attorneys to examine sentencing disparities and develop recommendations on how we can address them. Today, I can report that this Racial Disparities Working Group – led by U.S. Attorney Carter Stewart, of the Southern District of Ohio – has grown to include more than a dozen U.S. Attorneys. They are meeting regularly, with the next convening scheduled for next month. And they are making great progress.
Already, the Working Group’s recommendations have informed key parts of the “Smart on Crime” initiative related to sentencing guidance and the Department’s renewed focus on diversion and drug treatment programs. Last month, they strongly urged the U.S. Sentencing Commission to establish a new advisory group to study potential sentencing disparities involving American Indian defendants. They are currently evaluating ways to improve training programs and enhance data collection – to ensure that our understanding of this problem is as comprehensive as possible. And going forward, they plan to conduct extensive outreach to civil rights organizations and law enforcement leaders to identify areas of concern – and reduce the likelihood that race will play any role in the investigation and prosecution of crimes.
I look forward to reviewing additional recommendations and findings as the Working Group’s efforts unfold. And in the meantime, I believe we can all be proud of significant steps the Justice Department is taking to address disparities and eliminate ineffective or biased policing practices.
Yet nearly half a century after Dr. King’s untimely passing, it’s clear that a great deal of work remains to be done. And as we come together today – to continue our pursuit of a more perfect union, and to keep building the more just society for which so many millions have fought, and organized, and marched over the years – it’s time for new generations of public servants and patriotic citizens to step forward.
It’s only by working together – inspired by the examples of our forebears, and led by organizations like this one – that we can make good on our determination to break down the barriers that still divide us from one another. And it’s only by working together that we can build bridges and rekindle trust between disparate groups – so we can stand united as one people, bound by a shared vision, and dedicated to the prospect of a fair and equal future.
I am proud to join you in this effort, and to pledge my strong and ongoing support – and that of my colleagues throughout the Department of Justice. Although I’m hopeful about what this Administration will accomplish in the years ahead, I am even more optimistic about what we’ll be able to achieve with the strong and steadfast partnership of leaders like you.
Dr. King once said that there is nothing more powerful than “the marching feet of a determined people.” Today, we declare that though we have traveled far on the road of progress, our march goes on – and we are as determined as ever before. In the way that those to whom we owe so much made progress in their time, we must make this time ours. There is hard work and disappointment ahead. But the reality of positive change is within our grasp if only we will reach for it.
We must use our glorious past as a guide and not as a repository for our dreams. Dare to question. Dare to challenge. But more than anything, dare to act. We owe this to those who came before us, to those still sweltering in the heat of inequality and to generations yet to come. As the history of America has always demonstrated, an active people can make this nation better. So it must be again.
I thank you once again for your advocacy, your commitment, and your leadership. I wish you a most productive annual convention. And I look forward to where your efforts will lead us from here.