Justice News

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Associate Attorney General Tony West at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration Hosted by the Union League of Chicago
Chicago, IL
United States
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Monday, January 20, 2014

Thank you, [President Maras], for that kind introduction, and thank you, Union League Club of Chicago, for that warm welcome; it is an honor to be here.

And I’m proud to be back in the great city of Chicago.  I first became captivated by this city as a young boy.  For a few years in the early ‘80s, my grandfather pastored Carter Temple, a CME church down on the South Side, and I spent much of a hot summer here helping out at the church, hanging out with my cousins, learning the “L,” and discovering a vibrant, bustling, frenetic world very different from the Northern California suburbs where I grew up.  And with each return visit, I enjoy this city even more.

Let me also express my gratitude to Sandra Finley, a member of your Public Affairs Committee and chairwoman of your Subcommittee on Race, for her efforts to bring me here this morning.  I am always grateful for the chance to leave D.C. and get out into the country, and I’m particularly thankful for this opportunity to be with you as we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Every January for the last 30 years, we have gathered together in neighborhoods and towns, on street corners and public spaces, to remember Dr. King’s contribution and to do our best to measure up against the yardstick he called life’s most persistent question: “What are you doing for others?” 

Here at the Union League Club, you know something about that.  For nearly a century and a half – stretching back to political activists who gathered support throughout the country for President Lincoln and the Union cause – this organization has written a history rooted in the spirit of progressive civic engagement.  From your Union League Boys and Girls Club, to your initiatives aimed at raising awareness about pressing social issues, to the many public projects you make possible to improve the life of this city, you help answer Dr. King’s call to service.

And though it was issued a half-century ago, Dr. King’s call to justice is all the more conspicuous today as the Nation marks a series of semi-centennial milestones that recall our collective story to become a More Perfect Union:

Fifty years since they came by the thousands to march peacefully and hear Dr. King's inspirational clarion call on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Fifty years since Mississippi's “Freedom Summer;” since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; since Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.

Fifty years since Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

And while there can be little debate that in the half-century separating those events from our own we have forged enormous progress – we’ve shattered political, economic and social barriers once thought unbreakable – while that is undeniably true, I am struck by the fact that at the heart of what Dr. King and his contemporaries were grappling with back then remain, fundamentally, the same challenges facing us today:

How do we build a society that allows all people the freedom to realize fully their own potential? 

How do we ensure that, in Dr. King’s words, “[l]aw and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice” and not to erect “dams that block the flow of social progress?”

How do we, in short, build a better justice system?

Now, these are questions not just for the “disciplined nonconformist,” as King once called himself – the individual who embarks on the difficult, perilous and uncertain journey of change.  No, these are questions for each of us; challenges for all of us.  Especially those of us privileged to serve in positions of public trust and responsibility.

My first job at the Justice Department was twenty years ago, as a young lawyer.  Working in the same building I work in now, I was fortunate back then to do much of my work for then-Attorney General Janet Reno. 

And after about a year , I accepted an opportunity to return to my home state of California and serve as a federal prosecutor. But before I left, Attorney General Reno summoned me to her office for a one-on-one meeting.

And during our meeting, she showed me an inscription carved on the wall of the Attorney General’s private office. It reads, and I’m paraphrasing:  “The Government wins its case when justice is done.”   And Attorney General Reno told me then that my main job as a prosecutor was not to go out and win as many cases as I possibly could, but to do justice in every case I handled.

That admonition has meant pursuing the protection of the American people from threats both at home and abroad with dedication and perseverance, to be sure.  But it also means more than that.

“Doing justice” means striving to live up to the promise of dignity and equality before the law for every individual, regardless of which side of a case they are on.  It means being honest with ourselves about addressing those areas where we fall short.  And, in those difficult decisions that we are often called on to make, it means doing not what is partisan, or political, or popular, but doing what is right.  In short, the pursuit of justice means constantly working toward a system of justice that maintains its legitimacy in the eyes of those it serves. 

The pursuit of justice, of course, was the unifying logic of Dr. King’s work.  And for those of us at the Department of Justice, it is the unifying principle of our mission.  We pursue that mission in a variety of ways, as we vigorously defend our citizens’ right to vote, protect consumers from abuse and our markets from manipulation, safeguard the environment, provide assistance to state and local law enforcement, and more.

But there are three areas in particular I’d like to share with you this morning where the Justice Department is working hard to build a more just, more fair, more responsive justice system.

 One of the half-century anniversaries we recently recognized honors neither a president nor a King but a man once described as a drifter and petty thief. 

In 1961, Clarence Gideon was arrested for breaking into a pool hall and stealing about five dollars in change from a cigarette vending machine.  At his trial, Gideon asked the judge for a lawyer, saying he was too poor to hire one himself.  The judge denied Gideon’s request, and after representing himself at trial, Gideon was convicted and sentenced to five years.

Now, anybody who watches even a little TV knows you have the right to an attorney even if you can’t afford one. That idea is so ingrained in our national DNA, so unremarkable to the contemporary ear, that we’ve come to think of it as a right that is both inevitable and universal. 

But for Gideon it was neither.  So, from the confines of his jail cell, Gideon wrote a simple, five-page plea asking the United States Supreme Court to grant him a new trial with appointed counsel.  “It makes no difference how old I am or what color I am or what church I belong to if any,” Gideon wrote.  “The question,” he said, “is very simple.  I did not get a fair trial.” 

The High Court ultimately heard Gideon's plea and, in a case that bears his name, established the principle that our Constitution guarantees defendants in criminal cases the right to a lawyer whether that person can afford one or not.  Gideon received a new trial – this time with the assistance of a court-appointed lawyer – and he was acquitted.

Now today, Gideon’s humble, handwritten five-page petition, penciled on prison stationary, sits in the National Archives, along with the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Yet for too many Americans who are poor, and often of color, Gideon’s promise goes unfulfilled In states and counties across the country, public defender offices struggle to provide adequate legal services to indigent defendants, laboring under the weight of crushing caseloads, inadequate oversight and insufficient resources.  At the federal level, budget cuts in recent years have caused federal defenders to be laid off, furloughed, and left with the impossible responsibility of figuring out how to defend their cases without funds for experts, language interpreters, and court transcripts. 

For all of us who care about the integrity of our justice system, this situation is untenable.  Ensuring that all Americans have access to the legal services to which they are constitutionally entitled is neither a luxury nor an act of charity; it is a central component of a fair and effective justice system.

So, not long after he took office, Attorney General Eric Holder launched the Access to Justice Initiative, or "ATJ," an effort to help ensure our constitutional rights are accessible to everyone, regardless of wealth or status. And since its formation, ATJ has built partnerships both within and outside the federal government to mount what has become the Justice Department’s most significant and sustained commitment to indigent defense since Attorney General Robert Kennedy’ s tenure.  

 As a result, over the last four years, the Department has committed more than $24 million in grants, initiatives, and direct assistance to support indigent defense work around the country.

And, where appropriate, we are using the authority of the Justice Department to help ensure that the right to counsel is being upheld.  Recently, the Department of Justice – for the first time in its history – weighed in on a case about the quality of indigent defense in two Washington state communities.  We urged the federal court there to appoint an independent monitor to evaluate public defender caseloads should the judge find that defendants' Sixth Amendment rights were deprived – a recommendation the court ultimately adopted. 

Of course, I am mindful that we must do more if we are to fulfill Gideon's promise.  But these are important steps that help to keep us committed to forging a justice system that is both fair and accessible to all.

A second example of our efforts to do what Dr. King called “step[s] toward the goal of justice” comes from some of the most rural pockets of America. 

Fifty years ago, Attorney General Robert Kennedy spoke of the “tragic irony” of Native Americans living in the richest country in the world yet imprisoned by conditions of poverty and deprivation – circumstances not found in the natural order of things but manmade, imposed and perpetuated by bigotry and greed and violence.

If you were born a First American, living on a reservation, then you would know that your communities suffer disproportionately from assault, property offenses, and other criminal acts.

And if you were born a Native woman, you would know that you experience domestic and sexual violence at rates that are the highest in the country.  Tragically, nearly half of all Native American women experience some form of domestic or sexual abuse by an intimate partner 

Since returning to the Department of Justice as part of the Obama Administration, I’ve traveled to Indian Country about a half-dozen times in the last five years.  I have met with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and I’ve listened to their stories of fear and frustration with a criminal justice system that seems to have forgotten them. 

Stories like Diane Millich’s, a native of the Southern Ute tribe in Colorado who, at 26, fell in love with a man who was non-Indian, married him and began living in a home on her reservation.  But when he began beating her and Diane sought help, she found that she had nowhere to turn, even after divorcing him and obtaining a protective order. 

You see, until recently, an Indian tribe could not prosecute a non-Indian for domestic violence, even if that perpetrator lived on the reservation and was married to a tribal member victim.  And this legal limitation had real world consequences for women like Diane, given that roughly half of all married Indian women have non-Indian husbands who are beyond the reach of tribal judicial systems because of their race.

Because Diane’s husband was white, the Southern Ute Tribal Police were powerless to intervene.  After one of his vicious beatings, Diane recalled, her husband even called the authorities himself just to prove to her he was beyond accountability.  It was only after Diane’s husband stalked her at work, opened fire and shot one of Diane’s co-workers who was trying to protect her did authorities arrest him.

So to bridge this gap in justice and help bring some hope to Native women, the Justice Department led the way in changing the law.  We proposed language that was enacted by Congress as part of the newly-reauthorized Violence Against Women Act – language that, for the first time in three decades, will allow tribes to exercise special criminal jurisdiction over certain defendants who commit acts of domestic or dating violence in Indian country, regardless of whether the perpetrator is Indian or non-Indian.   

Now, this represents an historic step forward for tribal sovereignty and self-determination – and countless women living throughout Indian country will live safer lives as a result.  But we know there is always more to do to reduce domestic violence in Indian country, so our Department continues to work in partnership with tribes to make their communities safer.

Finally, “doing justice” means we have to confront the reality that many Americans, mostly of color, are trapped in what the Attorney General has called the “vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration,” and that “aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems rather than alleviate them.” 

There is little doubt that over the last three decades, we've enjoyed great success in bringing down violent crime rates nationally.  But with prison populations exploding by more than 800 percent over those same thirty years and almost half of all federal inmates serving time for drug-related crimes, the fact is, as the Attorney General put it bluntly in a speech last August, “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” 

Reynolds Wintersmith, Jr., a native of this state, was one of those Americans.  Raised in a family where dealing drugs was a way of life, Wintersmith was 11 when his mother died of an apparent heroin overdose.  He and his 9-year-old sister were the first to discover her body. 

Wintersmith was sent to live with his grandmother, whose home was a brothel and a crack house.  Family members taught him to cook crack as a teenager.  When he was 16, his grandmother was arrested, leaving him to him the responsibility of supporting his younger siblings.  And at 17, he started selling drugs with a street gang.   

That led to Wintersmith’s arrest and conviction as part of a drug conspiracy, which resulted in a mandatory life sentence.  He was 19 at the time.

Even the Illinois federal judge who sentenced Wintersmith expressed concerns about imposing such a severe sentence on a non-violent, first-time offender, saying “there ought to be some latitude for the court to take that into consideration when you have a 17-year-old who gets involved.” 

 That was in 1994.  After twenty years, Mr. Wintersmith – now a man of 40 years – will be released in April, his life sentence commuted by the President last month.  But his story is one illustration of the mass incarceration and prolonged sentences that cost us too much as a nation without any real public safety benefit in return.  The combined state, local and federal tab for maintaining prisons continues to skyrocket, costing taxpayers $80 billion in 2010 alone. 

And officials at every level and from across the political spectrum are now agreeing that when it comes to deterring future crime, mass incarceration is not a good investment:  Forty percent of federal inmates – and 60 percent of state prison inmates – re-offend within three years after exiting prison.

Now add to this picture dramatic demographic disparities in our prison populations – where people of color are grossly overrepresented – and serious questions are raised about the fairness of our criminal justice system, about whether similarly-situated defendants are really being treated equally under the law.

So, as a result of an internal criminal justice review last year, the Attorney General set forth a corresponding menu of reforms the Department is calling the "Smart on Crime" initiative.

It's a reform effort which recognizes that while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains our central and necessary law enforcement mission, experience teaches us that we cannot arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. To truly be effective, federal law enforcement efforts must also focus on other aspects of criminal justice, like prevention and reentry.

And a key part of more effective federal law enforcement begins with our young people.  We must close the school-to-prison pipeline that for too many kids, too often acts as a one-way ticket into the criminal justice system.  As the Attorney General points out, “[e]ffective discipline is, and always be, a necessity.”  Keeping our schools safe and holding students to a high standard of accountability is expected.  “But a routine school discipline infraction should land a student in the principal’s office – not a police precinct.”

Earlier this month, in a joint effort with our partners at the Department of Education, we issued school climate and discipline guidance to assist schools in meeting their obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  The guidance is part of our joint Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which encourages effective disciplinary practices to foster safe, supportive, and productive learning environments and promote evidence-based practices that keep students in schools and out of the courts.  

Another important component of the Attorney General's criminal justice reforms is a change in the way federal prosecutors charge certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders – like Mr. Wintersmith – who may be subject to unfairly long mandatory minimum sentences.  By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers, we better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation – while making our law enforcement expenditures smarter and more productive.

And through the Smart on Crime initiative, we're bringing together a bipartisan coalition of state leaders, local stakeholders, private partners, and federal officials to comprehensively reform corrections and criminal justice practices.  We're supporting states as they redirect funding away from prison construction and toward evidence-based programs and services, like treatment and supervision, designed to reduce recidivism and lower prison costs.  

So this is what “the pursuit of justice” can look like.  And with every effort we expend, we’re reminded that our charted course toward justice is not linear; it requires constant reassessment, readjustment, and recalibration to ensure we're on the right path.

Because, as Dr. King taught us, if the arc of history bends toward justice – and I believe it does – then it bends not by its own weight but by the hands of those who dare to reach; humble hands; ordinary, everyday hands; hands like mine; hands like yours.