Significant Speeches

Remarks of the Honorable David J. Hickton
United States Attorney For The Western District of Pennsylvania
At The
4th Annual PromiseNet Conference

Renaissance Hotel
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
October 20, 2011

Thank you.

It is an honor to be invited here today.

Saleem Ghubril, you are one of my heroes. The positive difference you have made in our community through The Pittsburgh Project and now The Pittsburgh Promise is immeasurable. Your life story is inspirational. You are one of the most selfless, grounded, and intelligent people I know; and your determination and dedication to improving the lives of your fellow man is an invaluable asset to the growth of this City and especially its most valuable assets--our youth. I thank you for all of your good work and for our friendship.

The Pittsburgh Promise has created great excitement in our region. In addition to the benefit of a college education to the qualifying students, the program speaks to our commitment to invest in each other; to invest in our children; to invest in our future. This creative and generous partnership has relit the torch of our great renaissance and inspired us to believe again in our public school system. We can have excellent schools; we can produce excellent students; we can succeed. I salute Pittsburgh Promise and all of you here today committed to and concerned about educational opportunity for kids.

Through your daily work and by your presence here today, each of you acknowledges the importance of education. As educators, your role is to teach our youth and inspire them to learn. As researchers, your role is to assemble data, information and statistics to offer insight and suggest strategies for reform and improvement. The foundations here commit to enhancing the life of a child through financial and program support. In each role, you are an archangel of opportunity; of access to the basic and fundamental right of education as the highway of freedom and possibility for our children.

I have also been inspired by The Holy Ghost Mission which states that education is to teach students to develop the wisdom to see and the courage to act in creating a more humane and just society. This is the best and most succinct mission of education. Indeed, it forms my approach to my continuous self-education and helps inspire my public service. It is the noble aspiration which I ascribe to your inspiring and heroic work.

My job as United States Attorney is to protect the public welfare by following the law and Constitution. Simply put--we are to do justice. Doing justice includes ensuring equal access and opportunity for all. Equal access and opportunity for all includes protecting the rights of our children including their right to an education.

In simple terms, my job is to work to ensure that the important, necessary and interdependent goals of freedom and justice are provided so when we say "freedom and justice for all" we mean "for all" not for "for some."

Our work can be visualized as a three-legged stool: Prosecution–Prevention–Re-entry. Each is critical to the balance in our mission.

The principal threat to our urban youth is the narco-gang-drug subculture which has spawned violence, high drop-out rates, poor educational achievement and low employment. The street organizations who engage in violent trafficking of illegal drugs terrorize our neighborhoods and rob our youth of any chance at the American Dream. Whether voluntarily or by force, many urban youth abandon the right track for disaster. Our prosecution priorities include a commitment to identify, prosecute and dismantle these criminal organizations. I have pledged to work every day in this effort, and we have tirelessly identified and prosecuted many large groups who violate the law, prey upon the sick, terrorize our citizens and sap our future through the destruction of a generation of our youth.

We also work aggressively to prevent these crimes. Prevention makes good sense–we prevent a victim’s pain; we may salvage a life headed to destruction and we can more economically protect the public welfare through prevention strategies than prosecution efforts.

We have many signature prevention efforts and most of them are directed at youth at risk.

Through the Youth Futures Commission, we are working every day in partnership with the United Way, the local business and foundation communities and community organizations to provide programs for at-risk children to give them a fighting chance at success. These programs provide after-school and weekend activities. Most importantly, these programs provide mentors and education to support the children and fill gaps in their family and social support structures.

Recently The Youth Futures Commission launched its "Be 1 in a Million" program. "Be 1" emerged from a call made by First Lady Michelle Obama in January challenging organizations to expand or create mentoring programs to help reduce dropout rates and juvenile delinquency. “Be 1" extends that call specifically to the Pittsburgh area to help improve the educational success of our region's students by becoming a mentor, reader, tutor, educational champion or career speaker to targeted school districts within Pittsburgh Public Schools and Allegheny County.

In 2009, the Department of Justice’s National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence reveals that 60% of children are exposed to some type of crime, abuse or violence. Whether a child is an observer or direct victim of violence, the experience was associated with long-term physical, psychological and emotional harm. Children exposed to violence fail in school more often than other children and are more likely to commit acts of violence themselves. We cannot stand idly by while this epidemic of violence robs our youth of their childhood and perpetuates a cycle in which today's victims become tomorrow’s criminals. Addressing the issue after the violence has occurred is costly–psychologically and emotionally to the child and socially and economically to our communities. Prevention through education is a must in helping our youth attain their right to pursuit of the American dream. As very simply stated by Victor Hugo, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”

Statistics show that high school dropouts make up disproportionately higher percentages of the Nation's institutionalized population. Comparing those who drop out of high school with those who complete high school, the average high school dropout costs the economy approximately $240,000 over his or her lifetime in terms of lower tax contributions, higher reliance on Medicaid and Medicare, higher rates of criminal activity and higher reliance on welfare.

We are also vigorously active in sponsoring re-entry programs. Programs such as the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative, The RISE Court and the Work Force Development Effort recognize the value and importance of reducing recidivism and the need for community support to prevent recurrence of criminal behavior.

The intersection of youth problems and education has been a recurring issue during my tenure. But it is also true that educational opportunity is the best and most obvious pathway out of the thicket. It is folly to think we can abandon a generation or segment of society as lost. It is equally silly to think that we can prosecute our way out of this problem or that government solutions are the only avenue. And, we must not accept reduced standards of academic excellence.

That is why I stand here in reverent appreciation for your good work. Somewhere and, hopefully often, your work to teach wisdom and courage to our youth intersects with our work to ensure freedom and justice. Together, that force can change the world.

Thank you.

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