Thank you, Congressman [Danny] Davis, for that kind introduction – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It is a pleasure to be with you today. It’s a privilege to be with such a distinguished group of leaders, advocates, partners, and allies – and particularly with Congressman Davis and Congresswoman [Eleanor Holmes] Norton, who first envisioned this event – as well as all of the eminent members of the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys who have made it possible.
Above all, it’s an honor to help welcome each of the returning citizens who will be sharing their stories during this afternoon’s panel. Thank you for lending your voices – and your unique perspectives – to this important Forum. I know each of you has had to work hard to overcome your mistakes to be here today. But the fact that you’re here is not only inspiring – it’s proof of the strength, and the sheer determination, that defines you. And it’s emblematic of the courage that drives so many who have acknowledged their past mistakes, paid their debts to society, and taken action to reclaim their futures – and rejoin their communities – not merely as law-abiding citizens, but as role models for those around them.
The need for you and others to keep serving as role models is in some ways the issue that brings us together this afternoon – because, at its core, being a role model is what fatherhood is all about. As a prosecutor and a former judge; as United States Attorney for the District of Columbia and as Deputy Attorney General; as Attorney General of the United States – and, most importantly, as the father of three wonderful kids – I’ve seen firsthand the unique power that involved, engaged fathers have to positively impact the lives of young people.
As fathers, we teach our children to do the right thing, to respect others, and to respect themselves. We’re there to support them when they need us. We set them back on the right path whenever they stray. And we give them space and independence to grow and develop – if and when they show us they can handle it.
As I’ve said many times before, being a dad has been the single greatest blessing of my life – as well as the most important and most demanding job I’ve ever had. I suspect that most of the other fathers in this crowd would say the same. Yet the unfortunate reality is that, for far too many children – and especially for African-American kids – the involvement of a loving and attentive parent is not something they can count on. And in too many places, strong, positive role models are in short supply.
Studies have consistently shown that, when parents are not around and involved, kids are more likely to drop out of school, to use drugs, and to become involved with the criminal justice system. They face elevated risks of incarceration. And their futures too often become caught up in a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration – a cycle that has a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
As we speak, approximately one in 28 American children has a parent behind bars. For African-American children, this ratio is roughly one in nine. This is just shocking and unacceptable. And it’s an affront to who we say we are as a nation. It's why men of color must do more and be better. And so must our system.
As a society, we pay much too high a price whenever our system fails to deliver outcomes that deter and punish crime, keep us safe, and ensure that those who have paid their debts have the chance to become productive citizens. And like many of you, I’ve seen this firsthand.
During my time as a judge on the Superior Court here in Washington – and later as this city’s United States Attorney – I learned how our overreliance on incarceration traps people, tears families apart, and destroys individual lives. Day after day, I watched lines of young people – most often young men of color – stream through my courtroom. Too many of the faces I saw became familiar – because too many of the people I sentenced served their time, were released from prison, and sooner or later returned to the same behaviors that had led them to my courtroom in the first place.
That experience taught me – and extensive research has shown – that better treatment, community engagement, and expanded access to resources like housing and job training can result in better outcomes for many who come into contact with the criminal justice system. I firmly believe that our country has a broad obligation to support those who work hard to break free of this cycle. And that’s why my Justice Department colleagues and I are taking action – through the “Smart on Crime” initiative I launched nearly a year ago – to use data-driven methods to improve the criminal justice system across the board; to make our expenditures both smarter and more productive; and to increase our focus on proven diversion and reentry strategies.
Now, I want to be very clear: we must never stop being vigilant in our pursuit of justice and our determination to hold accountable those who break the law and victimize their fellow citizens. Individuals must be responsible for their own actions. But we will never be able to prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. That’s why – as you know – among the key changes we’ve made is a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies with regard to mandatory minimum sentences for people who have committed certain low-level, non-violent federal drug-related crimes. This important change will ensure that these defendants are no longer charged with offenses that impose excessive mandatory minimums that are out of proportion to their alleged conduct. And it will make our system both fairer and more just.
The Department has also pressed for changes through the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for the sentences imposed on federal criminal defendants. In March, I testified before that body to endorse a proposal that would lower the base offense associated with various drug quantities involved in drug trafficking crimes. Soon after, the Commission adopted this proposal. The change would impact nearly 70% of all drug trafficking offenders and reduce the average sentence by 11 months, or nearly 18%, according to the Commission.
This was a modest change, but still represented a milestone. In the weeks since the Commission adopted the new proposal, the question has understandably been raised about whether these new guidelines should also apply to those currently in prison serving sentences imposed under the old rules. I believe that they should, to a large extent. As of today, we are able to make an announcement on that: the Department has decided to formally support a proposal making these sentence reductions retroactive for certain incarcerated individuals in the federal prison system. Under the department’s proposal, if your offense was nonviolent, and did not involve a weapon, and you do not have a significant criminal history, then you would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence in accordance with the new rules approved by the Commission in April.
Not everyone in prison for a drug-related offense would be eligible. Nor would everyone who is eligible be guaranteed a reduced sentence. But this proposal strikes the best balance between protecting public safety and addressing the overcrowding of our prison system that has been exacerbated by unnecessarily long sentences.
I’ve called on Congress to do even more in this regard – by passing the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act to give judges additional discretion in determining appropriate sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes. This legislation could ultimately save our country billions of dollars while keeping us safe. It’s consistent with the goals of the Smart on Crime initiative and the reduction in sentencing guidelines that was adopted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in April. And I want to thank every member of Congress who has signed on to this important bill for your steadfast leadership in helping to move it forward.
In addition to calling for legislative remedies, my colleagues and I are working to increase support for drug courts, veterans courts, and other innovative diversion, rehabilitation, and reentry programs – so we can enable nonviolent individuals to obtain the resources and assistance they need. Beyond our work to reduce recidivism and improve reentry programming, the Justice Department is also striving to restore justice, fairness, and proportionality to those currently involved with our justice system through an improved approach to the executive clemency process. In April, the Deputy Attorney General announced expansive new criteria that we will consider when recommending clemency applications for President Obama’s review. This will allow the Department and the president to consider requests from a larger field of eligible individuals – who have clean prison records, who do not present threats to public safety, and who were sentenced under out-of-date laws that are no longer seen as appropriate.
I’m pleased to report that we’re moving swiftly to put this clemency project into effect. We’ve already established an extensive screening mechanism, and we’ve begun the process of engaging assistance from pro bono attorneys. We have detailed a number of lawyers within the Justice Department to temporary assignments in the Pardon Attorney’s Office. And we’ve taken important steps to establish a process by which we will consult with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and trial judge who handled each original case – so we can evaluate clemency applications in the appropriate context.
I am particularly grateful for the assistance of dedicated criminal defense and nonprofit lawyers who have stepped forward to answer our call for experienced pro bono counsel. As our process unfolds, these associated groups and individuals – who are calling themselves “Clemency Project 2014” – will work with incarcerated individuals who appear to meet our criteria and who request the assistance of a lawyer.
Of course, our action on clemency will not be immediate – and it will not, and should not, be universal. The Justice Department will submit every clemency application to the rigorous scrutiny it requires – and that the American people deserve. We will take a deliberative, individualized, case-by-case approach to ensure that clemency plays an appropriate and operative role in our criminal justice system. And our first priority will always – always – be the safety of the American people.
As we move forward, my colleagues and I will continue to rely on leaders like the people in this room – and passionate, engaged citizens across the nation – to keep advancing, refining, and growing these efforts – from the Smart on Crime initiative to our work with Congress; from executive clemency to the President’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative – an innovative call-to-action that’s bringing together government and private groups to support young men of color. This Administration-wide effort represents the next step in our struggle to keep young people on the right track; to knock down the barriers they face; and to ensure that every American’s ability to get ahead is determined by his or her work ethic, goals, and potential – not by the circumstances of their birth.
After all, we gather today in recognition of the fact that America’s future will be defined – and our progress determined – by more than the sum total of our actions, our intentions, and even the values that guide us. Our future ultimately rests in the hands of our young people. And especially as we approach Father’s Day, we must all be mindful of the responsibilities we have to set good examples for our kids; to inspire, empower, and do right by them; and to act on the understanding that the difference between success and failure is often determined in the smallest moments. In individual conversations with role models that can change the course of a person’s life. In the decisions that responsible adults and community leaders can influence for the better. And in the love, guidance, and support that fathers are so well-situated to provide.
When I think about what it means to be an engaged citizen and a role model, I think of – and am thankful for – my own wonderful father, whom I loved, admired and miss every day. I think of how fortunate I was to have the benefit of the example he set. I think of all that I owe him, and all that he did, to give me every opportunity to succeed. And most of all, I think of the duty – that’s shared by everyone in this room – to make sure every child can be as fortunate as I was; to do everything in our power to craft policies that help keep families together and support parental involvement; and to take action in our own lives and communities to serve as the role models and positive influences that so many children lack – so we can empower them to build the futures they deserve.
I thank you for your leadership, your passion, and your steadfast commitment to these efforts. I am proud to count you as partners in the considerable work that lies ahead. And I look forward to all that we must – and surely will – achieve together in the months and years to come.