Good morning. I'd like to thank you for inviting me to be here with you. I am always grateful meeting with groups like yours, because President Bush and I are well aware that local law enforcement officers, including sheriffs, are the key to our efforts to eradicate violent crime and make our communities safer. So I want to thank you for what you do every day, and to let you know that I intend for you and your colleagues back home to be an important part of what we do going forward. And I want to talk a little about what we've got planned at the Department of Justice along those lines.
Only the victims of violent crime and their families can really know and express the depth of the damage that is done by its perpetrators. Not long ago, my wife Rebecca and I attended the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Candlelight Vigil in Washington. Some of you may have been there as well. I don't think I can talk about an issue like violent crime, or speak to a group like this one, without taking some time to talk about officers killed in the line of duty.
The candlelight vigil is a stirring tribute to fallen heroes. During the vigil I could see the emotions on some of the faces in the crowd as the names of fallen officers were read out loud. After the program, Becky and I went into the audience to offer condolences to some of the survivors.
We were particularly moved by one family from Virginia, who had come to honor and remember their lost husband and father. Last August, Montgomery County sheriff's deputy Eric Sutphin was shot and killed while participating in a manhunt for an escaped prisoner.
We spoke with his family, surrounded by other survivors, but our words of comfort seemed so inadequate for their loss.
Theirs is just one story among the many -- too many – victims of senseless violent crime.
Like many other Americans—perhaps like some of you—I grew up in a neighborhood that had little besides hopes and dreams – two things that I consider to be the foundation for realizing the promises of this great nation.
But it is hard to hope, it is hard to pursue your dreams, if you live in fear and you grow up in a neighborhood that is weighed down by gangs and violent crime.
Now, back in Washington we are surrounded by symbols of America and institutions that make this country great. But America itself—its very heart and soul—is to be found in our communities, in our neighborhoods, and in our families. It is there that our children, and their dreams, can be nurtured and allowed to grow.
And it is there, at the local level, that crime most directly threatens those dreams. America cannot afford to be without the hopes of even a few of its children—we must do what we can to keep every one of them safe and protected. Every neighborhood deserves to be a safe neighborhood.
As federal law enforcement, we know that we are not the first responders to most crimes -- that burden falls on your shoulders. But there is much that we can do to help you carry that load. And with a coordinated cooperative effort, with federal, state and local law enforcement acting in true partnership, we will succeed in creating an environment where children can still dream.
Now, we know that, overall, national crime rates by historical standards are at very low levels. However, preliminary numbers for 2006 show a slight increase in the number of violent crimes. While this is less than last year’s increase, any increase is still a concern.
In general, it doesn't appear that the current data reveal nationwide trends. Rather, they show local increases in certain communities. Each community is facing different circumstances – and in many places, violent crime continues to decrease.
According to the preliminary numbers, the decreases seem especially good in non-metropolitan counties – where sheriffs tend to be the primary law enforcement officers. In those counties, murders decreased 11.9 percent from 2005, aggravated assaults dropped 5.4 percent, and property crime was down 4.2 percent.
That's great news for the citizens in your counties, and you should be proud of that achievement. But it doesn’t change how the families who live in those more-violent areas feel, and the daily challenges they must face.
In those neighborhoods, mothers continue to fear for their children.
In those communities, gang members continue to fight for domination.
And on those streets, sometimes even the innocent bystanders to violence lose their lives.
You know better than anyone that community-specific problems cannot successfully be tackled nationally or unilaterally, because crime issues vary from city to city, and even between neighborhoods in a single city. Recently, as part of our Initiative for Safe Communities, Department of Justice officials visited 18 metropolitan areas across the country to talk with state and local law enforcement and others in the community.
Some of those places had experienced increases in crime, while others had seen decreases. And in our conversations we heard again and again that no one answer, no one approach, no one government agency can solve the violent crime problems these communities face.
At the Department, our strategy emphasizes working with those communities -- with federal, state and local officials coming together to fight crime.
Although the federal government does not bear the primary burden in fighting local crime, as you know we do have some specialized expertise and resources that can assist local law-enforcement officials like you.
We can offer the extra weight of federal prosecution when appropriate, and we possess the means to collect and disseminate best practices and training. We can provide pretrial detention for felons who illegally possess firearms and, generally, longer prison terms without parole.
One of the models we've been using with great success because of the work of sheriffs has been the 42 Human Trafficking Task Forces operating in cities around the country. These partnerships between law enforcement and social service providers identify and help victims of human trafficking as well as apprehend and prosecute the perpetrators of these unconscionable crimes.
In one recent case, members of the task force in Minneapolis, Minnesota, including the FBI and the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, captured a man named Daniel McNeal, who also liked to go by the names "Diamond" and "Daddy." Last fall he enticed a 16-year old girl into prostitution, moving her around to Iowa, Texas and South Carolina. He had sex with her, and he offered her to others for money.
Now, McNeil already had a long criminal record for assault, robbery and prostitution offenses. Last month he pleaded guilty to federal human trafficking charges and he faces 10 years to life in prison. I wish we could have gotten to this girl quicker; that we could have saved her from more of the degradation and pain she suffered. But I'm glad we were able to rescue her and to get this depraved man off the streets.
Success stories like this one show the value of a cooperative approach. And to ensure that all of our violent crime task forces operate seamlessly and leverage the best that the federal government has to offer, the Department has been stepping up efforts to share information and improve coordination with state and local authorities. U.S. Attorneys offices will be convening meetings with representatives from the task forces in their districts to address and resolve any coordination issues.
And as an important step in making sure that we have the tools needed to get the job done, we recently sent to Congress comprehensive crime legislation. I don't want to get too deep into the details, but I want to share with you a few of the important elements of this bill.
First, it will improve a number of existing criminal laws to close gaps and strengthen the penalties and tools we have already. That means extending the statute of limitations for violent crimes and establishing enhanced penalties for violent crimes committed by illegal aliens.
It would help us stop illegal firearms transfers by increasing the maximum penalty and by expanding the law to cover transfer of a gun when there is a "reasonable cause to believe that firearm will be possessed in furtherance of a crime." That's a significantly lower hurdle than requiring prosecutors to prove that a gun was transferred knowing that it would be used to commit a crime. I am hopeful this will help deter the transfer of guns along our southern border—guns that have been used in the commission of violent crime in neighborhoods patrolled by our border sheriffs.
Second, the bill would make important improvements to the federal narcotics laws. It would cover substances that are chemically very similar to already controlled substances, to help us prosecute drug dealers trying to do an end-run around the law. And the legislation includes a section to make it easier for us to bring conspiracy charges against dealers who are manufacturing and distributing drugs outside the United States with the intent to smuggle them across our borders.
We all know how important an issue this kind of smuggling is, and what an impact it has on crime in our communities. These important measures will be a great help in our fight to stop the drug dealers.
And third, the legislation would restore the binding nature of the sentencing guidelines so that the bottom of the recommended sentencing range would be a minimum for judges, not merely a suggestion. The high end of the guidelines would remain advisory, so judges would be free to sentence convicts up to the statutory maximum.
Again, there are many more important provisions in this legislation, concerning crime victims' rights, child pornography, and national security. I look forward to working with Congress to enact measures like these that will strengthen our hand in fighting criminals who threaten the safety and security of all Americans.
Congress can further aid our efforts by approving the President's budget request for the Department of Justice, including funds specifically for violent crime partnership grants to help state and local law enforcement.
And while I'm on the subject of Congress, I want to take a minute to discuss the comprehensive immigration bill that's currently before the Senate. The President recognizes, just as I do, the vital role many sheriffs, especially those of you in border areas, have been playing in dealing with crime associated with illegal immigration. But we recognize this issue is primarily a federal responsibility. And that's why we're moving forward to improve border security, bring illegal aliens out of the shadows, give employers the tools they need to verify work eligibility, and create a temporary worker program to alleviate pressure on the border.
This legislation commits more resources to border security than ever before in U.S. history. It includes numerous border security triggers, including increasing border fencing and vehicle barriers at the Southern border; increasing the size of the Border Patrol; installing ground-based radar and camera towers along the Southern border; and ensuring resources are available to maintain the effective end of "Catch and Release."
This bill represents our best chance at real, meaningful reform and a comprehensive solution to our broken immigration system. This issue is simply too important for us to wait any longer. We need to be able to enforce the law.
During our Initiative for Safer Communities tour, we heard from local law enforcement officers in several cities that criminals have targeted their illegal immigrant communities because they know that victims are unlikely to report the crimes. Bringing these men, women and children into the larger community will help us to address these crimes, catch the criminals, and keep all of our people, citizens and non-citizens, from being victimized. In the end, this bill will help make our communities safer, and that's something all of us in law enforcement can look forward to.
In contrast, if this legislation doesn't pass, the pressure on the border will persist, and the U.S. economy will continue to lack an efficient mechanism to match willing foreign workers with unfilled jobs. As the President has noted, illegal immigration today is supported by criminal gangs dedicated to document forgery, human trafficking, and labor exploitation. This is unacceptable and we need to fix it in a way that honors our finest traditions.
We hope the Senate will act on this important issue, and that your organization will encourage them to give us the tools that I believe will ultimately make your job easier. It can truly be said that our efforts at fighting violent crime are all about cooperation. I know that every one of us in this room is dedicated to stopping crime. But I also know that no matter how hard we work, how many hours we put in, how far we push ourselves, no one person here can do it alone.
You rely on your colleagues — the men and women sitting next to you as well as those in your departments back home. And you rely on us -- your federal law enforcement partners -- who are dedicated just as you are to this mission. Our fight against violent crime is important to me too. And I rely on every one of you. When we are together—when we fight together, we cannot fail.
As Attorney General, I'm proud to serve alongside you. And as a father, I'm grateful for all that you do to keep our communities safe.
May God bless you all; may He guide you in your noble work, and may He continue to richly bless the United States of America.