BY JAY B. STEPHENS
NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF ATTORNEYS GENERAL
CIVIL RIGHTS SEMINAR - WASHINGTON, DC
MAY 8, 2002
I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the National Association of Attorneys General Annual Civil Rights Seminar. I particularly welcome the chance to work with you, our partners in State Attorney General Offices across the country. We share a common bond of being stewards of the public interest and a responsibility to enforce the laws that effect the rights of all our people effectively and even-handedly. During the past 20 years, I have worked to build a cooperative relationship between the Department of Justice and NAAG, and to identify areas of common interest to all of us who have been entrusted with the responsibility of preserving the liberty and security of our people. I am pleased to be able to continue that cooperative relationship today, and look forward to working with you in the future.
Today, I would like to share with you a few thoughts regarding the enforcement of our civil rights laws and to outline a number of initiatives the Department has undertaken in this area. We share with you a deep commitment to enforce even-handedly the laws that effect the rights of our people. The protection of our individual liberties is essential to maintaining America as the land of freedom and opportunity. Those of us in public service have a responsibility to maintain a level playing field for all our people to compete and flourish without unjust impediments.
Like you, we at the Department of Justice carry a profound responsibility to enforce a broad array of statutory and constitutional rights that define the relationships of our people to their government, to the public and private institutions in our society, and to each other. It is these relationships which define the promises of freedom and equality in America. Our common mission at the state and federal levels is to enforce the laws even-handedly and to ensure equality of opportunity for all our people without regard to factors such as race, age, religion, gender or disability.
At the Department, we seek to protect the freedom and security of our people on a number of fronts. In the areas of employment, housing, voting, education, and disabilities, we seek to ensure that individuals are not discriminated against, but have equal access to jobs, education, housing and the tools of democracy. We also seek to hold accountable those who use violence to violate the rights of others, whether the offender is an individual, an organization or an instrument of the state. We recognize that the most fundamental civil right we have in our organized society is the right to be free from violence at the hands of others, either from within or outside our borders.
I would like to share with you three or four initiatives we have undertaken at the Department of Justice to deliver on America's promise of equality of opportunity, human dignity, and individual liberty.
On September 11 of last year, our nation and our people were attacked by terrorists who thought they could break the spirit of America and throw our country into disarray. In response to those attacks, the vast majority of Americans rallied to support each other and to demonstrate an unparalleled spirit of generosity and unity. But some of our countrymen chose to unleash the fear and frustration born of these attacks on Arab-Americans, Muslims, and others perceived to be of Middle East descent or of the Muslim faith.
Following September 11, the Department of Justice received hundreds of complaints of threats and violence against Arab-Americans, Sikhs, and others of South-Asian descent living in America. We acted promptly and decisively to curb such unjust and discriminatory actions and to hold accountable those who inflicted violence on others because of their apparent nationality or religious beliefs. From the outset, the President and the Attorney General made clear that America's war on terrorism is not a war on the Islamic faith or on peoples of particular ethnic background, but is a battle against those who use terror against America and her people.
The Department of Justice established a National Origin Working Group to combat the post-September 11 backlash. The Working Group received complaints and reports of unlawful discrimination based on national origin, citizenship status, or religion, including complaints involving discrimination in housing, education, employment, government services, and law enforcement. Working with our partners in state and local law enforcement, the Working Group sought to ensure careful referral of reported incidents for investigation by appropriate components of the Department, other federal agencies, or state and local law enforcement.
In cooperation with the FBI and U.S. Attorneys' Offices around the country, since September 11 the Civil Rights Division has investigated nearly 350 allegations of threats and violence against Arab-Americans, Sikhs, South-Asian, or Muslim people in the United States. These cases have involved violent threats, vandalism against homes, businesses, and houses of worship, bombings, shootings, and murder.
To date, approximately 70 state and local criminal prosecutions have been initiated against nearly 80 defendants. Many of these cases have involved close coordination between local and federal prosecutors and investigators. The Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorneys' Offices continue to work closely with local prosecutors in cases where potential federal charges have not yet been brought or where plea negotiations could resolve both local and federal criminal liability. I know you appreciate that many of these allegations give rise to violations of federal civil rights statutes as well as state violent crime and property crime statutes. State, local, and federal law enforcement have worked well together to coordinate these investigations and to prosecute cases in the most appropriate jurisdiction.
Federal charges have been filed in ten cases which have been handled jointly by the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorneys' Offices. Recently, charges were filed against a man who allegedly drove his truck through the door of the Islamic Center Mosque in Tallahassee, Florida. Earlier this year, two persons were indicted in Los Angeles for conspiracy, property destruction, and explosive charges for allegedly bombing the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
The Working Group has also conducted outreach efforts to vulnerable groups to advise them about services available from the Department of Justice. Department officials have spoken out against bias-motivated violence, and representatives have met frequently with leaders representing a variety of Muslim, Sikh, and Arab-American groups to understand their concerns and to discuss the problem of backlash discrimination. The Department has sought to maintain clear lines of communication and to provide information about federal civil rights protections, procedures, and ongoing efforts to curb harassment and discrimination. Our efforts to address aggressively the backlash of September 11 are ongoing.
Another initiative we have undertaken is to develop an aggressive program to investigate and prosecute human trafficking. The human devastation from illegal trafficking in persons is tragic.
The Department of Justice estimates that as many as 50,000 persons - mostly women and children - are illegally trafficked into the United States annually. The victims generally are foreign nationals who are recruited through deception, force, or the false promise of employment and a better life. They are smuggled into the United States, and then often forced into indentured servitude, prostitution, and child labor sweat shops. Their treatment is the worst kind of human exploitation.
In March 2001, the Attorney General announced an initiative to combat human trafficking. This effort involves the development of outreach programs, training and guidance for prosecutors and law enforcement, closer coordination and cooperation among the FBI, INS, and the Civil Rights Division, and activation of the Trafficking in Persons and Worker Exploitation Task Force. The Task Force, which is co-chaired by officials of the Justice and Labor Departments, coordinates the investigation and prosecution of human traffickers, and seeks the protection of victims of trafficking. Using additional tools provided by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed by Congress in 2000, the Civil Rights Division and our U.S. Attorneys' Offices have jointly prosecuted dozens of traffickers and assisted hundreds of trafficking victims over the past year.
The Trafficking Act created new felony criminal offenses to address slavery and peonage, sex trafficking in children, and the unlawful confiscation of a victim's passport or other identification documents. It created a new "forced labor" felony that provides for the prosecution of non-physical coercive techniques used by traffickers to exploit their victims. Importantly, the new law also requires persons convicted of trafficking to pay full restitution to their victims and to forfeit their ill-gotten assets. Significantly, the Act provides for a broad array of services, benefits, and protections for trafficking victims. Earlier this year, for example, the Department promulgated regulations implementing the "T visa," created by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, to enable trafficking victims to remain in the United States to assist in prosecutions.
Using the new prosecutorial tools provided by the Act, the Department prosecuted 34 defendants for human trafficking in 2001 - roughly quadrupling the number prosecuted in the year 2000. The Department currently has over 90 pending trafficking investigations, which represent nearly a 20% increase over the number of investigations from the previous year. Representative of the investigations we are conducting are two cases which we have finished prosecuting.
In one case, a Maryland couple lured a 14-year-old girl from the Cameroon with promises of an American education, and then enslaved her as a domestic servant in their home for 3 years. They kept her under their power through physical violence and threats of deportation, and also sexually assaulted her. Ultimately, the young girl ran away with the help of a Good Samaritan. A call to our human trafficking complaint line led to a federal involuntary servitude prosecution. About 6 weeks ago, the couple was sentenced to 9 years in prison and ordered to pay the girl over $100,000 in restitution.
In another case, Russian women and girls were recruited on false pretenses to come to the United States as folk dancers. After arrival here, they were forced to dance in an Alaska strip club instead. The traffickers confiscated their travel documents and return airline tickets to keep them from escaping, and also took all of their earnings. Because of our training efforts, Immigration authorities recognized the situation as a trafficking case, and after further investigation freed the victims. The defendants pled guilty and are now serving up to 4 years in prison.
Another way in which the Department is working to protect human dignity and the rights of our people is through its implementation of President Bush's "New Freedom Initiative." This effort is designed to remove barriers that prevent Americans with disabilities from working and participating fully in community life. In 1999, the Supreme Court in Olmstead v. L.C. required states, where appropriate and reasonable, to place disabled individuals in community settings rather than institutions in order to provide them with greater access to community life.
In response to the President's call, the Department of Justice has developed "Project Civic Access" which is designed to improve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. As part of this project, the Department has conducted scores of compliance reviews and investigations to determine whether state and local governments are providing disabled persons adequate access to services and facilities as required by law.
As a result of these investigations and reviews, to date the Department has secured agreements with 50 communities that will improve the ability of people with disabilities to access and utilize public facilities such as town halls, courthouses, libraries, polling places, parks and police stations. Importantly, many of these changes have been achieved through cooperative working relationships between the Department and the local government. Working together, we have eliminated physical barriers and communication impediments that prevented many of our people from participating fully in civic life.
Finally, I would like to underscore the Department's aggressive efforts to address patterns of police misconduct and the violation of civil rights by other public officials. The prosecution of public officials who abuse their public trust to deprive our citizens of their constitutional rights is a priority of the Department. Those who have been given a public trust to protect others carry a special obligation. Since October 2000, more than 100 law enforcement officials have been charged with violating the constitutional rights of those they are sworn to protect. The number of charges filed in fiscal 2001 is the most ever filed in a single year - and represents a 50% increase over the prior year.
Significantly, we have taken a different approach regarding the investigation of §14141 "pattern and practice" allegations. Our fundamental operating premise is that we want to achieve long-term changes in police department policies and practices that may give rise to patterns of police misconduct. Instead of making accusations and then seeking change through confrontation, we have sought to work with police departments and affected and interested community groups to negotiate changes that accommodate technical assistance, best practices, and community involvement. While this process can require great patience, ultimately it forges relationships and fosters changes which achieve buy-in from officers, police officials, community leaders, and community groups. A negotiated agreement can achieve more lasting results and accommodate more creative solutions than simply demanding change through litigation. Its also helps build lasting constructive relationships rather than creating more hostile barriers.
Recently, we achieved a milestone resolution of a very difficult problem in Cincinnati. A little more than a year ago, riots broke out in Cincinnati following the fatal police shooting of Timothy Thomas. Community groups and civil rights groups demanded dramatic action. The police department seemed recalcitrant. The stand-off threatened to deteriorate and to undermine community-police relations and the stability of the city. The Department of Justice initiated a "pattern and practice" investigation using our new approach.
After months of negotiation, last month we achieved a blueprint for substantial reform of the police department and established a review process for police actions that won the endorsement of all the concerned parties. The participation of interested parties in the process, the initiative taken by the police department to modify policies and to import some best practices, and a more cooperative enforcement approach together provided a foundation for a long-term community-law enforcement relationship.
In conclusion, I would like to thank you again for the opportunity to share some time with you. You are involved in a noble effort and one in which you can take great pride. As public servants and leaders, we have a special trust to those we serve. We must enforce the law fairly and seek to ensure that the rights of all our people are protected equally. While this is not an easy task, it is one that surely is at the heart of the meaning of justice. I am confident that by working together and by our continued commitment to root out injustice wherever we find it, we can make our world a much better place for all our people.