REMARKS BY ERIC HOLDER
At the beginning of this century, G. Gordon Campbell wrote, "If the child is safe, everyone is safe." As we come to the end of the century, we are still struggling as a society to protect our children. Under the leadership of President Clinton crime has been reduced in America to its lowest levels in a generation. Americans, young and old, are safer now, much safer, than they were. In recent years, a great deal of attention has very justifiably been paid to the numbers of juveniles who commit crimes, but we have another problem with our children --the numbers of kids who are victims or witnesses of violent crime. In 1996 data reported to HHS showed that 3 million children were reported as maltreated or abused. Approximately 33% of violent crime victims are children under the age of 19. Youth age 12 to 19 are almost three times more likely than adults to experience violent crime and suffer injury as a result. Of the nation's 22.3 million adolescents ages 12 to 17, approximately 1.8 million have been victims of serious sexual assault, 3.9 million have been victims of serious physical assault, and almost 9 million have witnessed serious violence.
As a judge and then as the U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia, I saw firsthand that the usual ways of handling victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system were not appropriate or effective for cases involving children. I saw on the presentence reports of too many young people convicted of crimes that their first contact with the court system was as a victim of abuse or neglect. I met too many children, the victims of or witness to violence, who were confused, angry or broken - their lives forever affected. I sat in too many trials where the perpetrators of violence against children were not, due to defects in the law, adequately punished. For the rest of my life I will be haunted by the faces of children who suffered at the hands of violent adults or who witnessed the violent deaths of loved ones.
This is not as it has been viewed in the past, just a "social issue" it is also a law enforcement issue. Research shows that child victims are more likely to become adult victims; child victims are also more likely to become adult offenders. The only way to break this cycle is to prevent it from happening or to intervene early in the lives of children who experience violence.We must have patience and knowledge of children's developmental stages, special investigative methods, and innovative trial techniques designed to maximize the ability of children to convey accurate information and to minimize unnecessary revictimization. We must ensure that children traumatized by violent crime have access to mental health and other victims services to help them cope.
We must find better ways to address these issues. The stakes are incredibly high. Children who are victims, of or witnesses, to violence are at an increased risk for delinquency, adult criminality, and violent criminal behavior. Being abused or neglected as a child increases the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 53% and the likelihood of arrest for a violent crime as an adult by 38 percent. It also places children at significant risk for substance abuse, mental illness, and suicide. Much of this victimization goes unrecognized and unaddressed until the damage is done and it is too late to repair it. Intervening in the lives of victimized children before negative patterns of behavior, self-esteem, and character are established may be the best way to prevent future violence in our streets and in our homes.
Under the leadership and direction of the President we, at the Justice Department have begun an initiative that will, in partnership with communities, social service agencies, schools, courts, local prosecutors, and the private sector, improve prevention, interaction and accountability efforts addressing children exposed to violence. In many communities across the country, criminal justice and other professionals are already working together to improve the response to children exposed to violence. Through the initiative, we will support those efforts. In some ways the work is just beginning, but we all share a fundamental belief: that committing violence against, or in the presence of children has a devastating impact and is something for which offenders must be held accountable. If our youngest and most vulnerable citizens do not receive justice, then quite simply we have no justice--and no one is safe.