Department of Justice Seal
Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Conference
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – March 17, 2003

(Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates From Prepared Remarks)

    Good afternoon. Thank you, Judge Mitchell, for that kind introduction. It is a pleasure and a privilege to join you, and I congratulate you on this 30th National Conference on Juvenile Justice.

    It is an honor to be here today, and I thank you all for the wonderful work you do each and every day on behalf of America's youth. The greatest responsibility of a society, in my view, is the transmission of values from one generation to the next. I thank you for embracing this responsibility, and for your willingness to invest in and to guide the young people of our nation.

     Every day, you dedicate yourselves to protecting the children of America. Every time a crime is not committed by a juvenile, every time a child does not return to the justice system, every time a report of abuse or neglect does not need to be written, you have succeeded. Though your success may go unnoticed in the public square, it will resound forever in the changed lives of the children you have rescued and rehabilitated.

Your success can be measured in numbers, which speak for themselves:

– The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention released a new survey showing that in the year 2000, juvenile arrests for violent crime decreased for the sixth consecutive year;

– The juvenile arrest rate for violent crime in 2000 was 41 percent below its peak in 1994, reaching its lowest level in 14 years; and

– The arrest rate for murder by a juvenile fell 74 percent in 2000 from its peak in 1993 – the lowest level since at least the 1960s.

    We are making great progress – but there is still more to be done. The survey also indicates that the arrest rate for girls actually increased 35 percent between 1980 and 2000. And although juvenile arrest rates are down, law enforcement agencies across the nation made an estimated 2.4 million juvenile arrests in 2000.

    We will not – we must not – allow the plague of crime, abuse, and neglect to overcome the promise of our nation's youth. The Justice Department is working tirelessly to support your efforts and to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth and juvenile offenders, as well as abused, neglected, missing and exploited children. Let me share with you just four of our current initiatives:

    First, the Justice Department is working to prevent child abductions. This past summer, America watched in horror as stories of missing children unfolded in the news. As our national awareness of the threats to our children has sharpened, we have become even more determined in our mission to protect their lives and safeguard their innocence.

    This past October, President Bush hosted the first-ever White House Conference on Missing, Exploited, and Runaway Children. The Conference brought the President and four cabinet agencies – the Departments of Justice, State, Education, and Health and Human Services – together with more than 600 experts to discuss ways to raise public awareness about missing children and to generate recommendations for law enforcement, parents, and communities.

    One of the programs that has proven successful in locating missing children and bringing them safely home is the AMBER Alert. AMBER – America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response – was created as a legacy to 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnaped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas, and then brutally murdered. After this horrific crime, Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters teamed with local police to develop an early warning system to help find abducted children.

    The Justice Department's Fiscal Year 2004 budget request allocated $2.5 million dollars in new funding to develop an effective, nationwide AMBER alert system. Few things grip law enforcement – and the American public – with more urgency than finding a missing child.

    When a child is abducted, the first hours are critical in rescuing the child and apprehending the abductor. A recent study by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention revealed that in 40 percent of "stereotypical kidnapings" – the rare type of high-profile, dangerous abductions chronicled in the media this past summer – the child was killed, almost always within 24 hours of being abducted.

    Taking the AMBER alert system nationwide will save innocent lives and take would-be predators off the streets. As the nation just witnessed in the case of Elizabeth Smart in Utah, an alert and informed citizenry can make all the difference in recovering a child. Today, we rejoice with Elizabeth and her family, celebrating her safe return.

     Second, the Justice Department is working to protect children from sexual exploitation. As technology has evolved, the means of exploiting our children have become increasingly sophisticated. When misused, the Internet can be a pernicious medium for child exploitation. It can present both a significant threat to the health and safety of young people and a formidable challenge for law enforcement.

    In response, the Justice Department has established the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program to help state and local law enforcement agencies develop an effective response to cyberenticement and child pornography cases. In 2002 alone, these task forces:

– served nearly 800 search warrants and nearly 2,500 subpoenas;
– conducted forensic examinations of nearly 2,500 computers; and
– assisted law enforcement in more than 3,500 cases of child exploitation.

    The Justice Department's FY 2004 budget request also dedicates $3.6 million to the FBI's Innocent Images National Initiative to combat the proliferation of child pornography and child sexual exploitation via the Internet. This is the first time an increase will be appropriated since 1998. It will help us to accommodate the burgeoning caseload that now challenges the FBI.

    In just six years, for example, the FBI saw a 2,000 percent increase in the number of Innocent Images cases opened. As long as predators seek to exploit and victimize our children, our commitment to investigating, prosecuting, and punishing them will only increase.

    Third, the Justice Department is working to ensure juvenile offenders who return to their communities after incarceration receive the supervision, services, and support they need to make a successful transition to their communities.

     The Department's Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Program, known as "Going Home," targets both adult and juvenile offenders. Each year, a significant number of juveniles return to their communities after serving time in juvenile correction facilities, yet many communities lack support services and supervision to help them adjust as they begin their new lives.

    The Justice Department's reentry initiative supports state and local efforts to help ensure these juveniles will not return to a life of crime. Programs such as "Going Home" provide them with the opportunity to become productive citizens and members of society. Juveniles receive education, vocational training, treatment, and life skills training for offenders while they are in correctional facilities. Once they return to their communities, services and supervision are provided. A network of agencies and individuals in the community who can assist offenders in remaining law-abiding, productive citizens are also available. Many of you, I am sure, are already leading these efforts in your own communities, and I thank you for your dedication.

    Fourth and finally, the Justice Department is supporting the good work of America's faith and community-based organizations. For years, these organizations have led the way in helping those in need to achieve dignity instead of despair, self-sufficiency instead of shame. At the Department of Justice, we have partnered with caring and compassionate religious and community organizations, not just to support efforts to assist juvenile offenders in re-entering our communities, but also to link troubled teens with caring mentors.

     Studies have found that kids in mentoring programs are 46 percent less likely to use drugs, 27 percent less likely to use alcohol, and 32 percent less likely to use violence to solve a problem than kids who do not participate in such programs. We have heard countless stories of young people whose lives have been changed forever by their relationship with mentors.

    I think of Frances Drake as one of the success stories of mentoring. She grew up with a father in prison and a mother addicted to drugs. By the age of 13, Frances had adapted to that lifestyle, adopting those values. She was a gang member, a drug user and an habitual runaway. She put it this way, "It was all I knew." She went on to say, "But by about 15, I started wondering if there wasn't something better I could do with my life."

     And then Frances connected with Carolyn Demme, a community services officer for the Clarke County Gang Task Force in Vancouver, Washington. Carolyn saw Frances' potential and refused to give up on her. Over time, Frances learned to trust Carolyn and managed to turn her life around. She returned to high school and now volunteers at a 911 center while working part-time.

     Frances attributes her success to her relationship with her mentor, and describes her new beginning as, quote, ". . . the side of life I never got to see. I'm finding out that I'm smart, that I can do things. Before I just figured I'd wind up in jail. Now I've got a plan for my life."

    Thanks to the tireless efforts of each of you here today, kids like Frances have the opportunity to turn their lives around. Each of you here is a vital part of our collective responsibility to lead by example and to pass on American values to the next generation.

     As we gather here today, many of our soldiers are gathered on the front lines of battle overseas, answering the call to defend freedom and protect America. All of you here today are also on the front lines, here at home, of the battle to protect America's youth. Bob Flores, the Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, put it best when he said, quote,

"Year by year, century by century, we have diligently worked to create a society that extends the blessings of freedom and liberty to all of our citizens. When we protect a child from injury and exploitation, when we preserve the opportunity for a child to grow into a healthy, well-adjusted adult, with a bright future of freedom and a full range of possibilities, we protect America."

    Thank you all for your dedication to protecting our children and providing them with the chance to embrace the blessings of American freedom. With each act of leadership, you reaffirm our commitment to the youth of America. With each act of justice, you change a life forever. Thank you for your leadership, your sacrifice, and your service.