Justice News

Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West Speak at Faith and Neighborhoods in Action: A Symposium to Address Economic Recovery Through Strong Communities and Job Creation
Baltimore, MD
United States
Monday, December 3, 2012

Thank you, Congressman Cummings, and thank you for your support of the Department of Justice over many years. I’m very pleased to join you and all the dedicated and hard-working people here today. It's a privilege to be here with you and with Director Ben Tucker from the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, a dedicated public servant. And it's good to be here with your Police Commissioner, Anthony Batts, who, before he came east to Baltimore, protected and served my home of Oakland, California.

Let me begin by commending you, Congressman, for your leadership on behalf of the people of Maryland’s Seventh District and for your commitment to building strong, healthy, and safe neighborhoods. I want you to know that at the Department of Justice we are proud to be your partner in this important work.

And let me also thank all of today’s participants – local officials, faith leaders, community groups, folks from the private sector, and concerned citizens – for the important contributions that each of you makes every day – and for the many talents and assets you bring to the table.

Let me tell you, your ingenuity and resolve are in great demand today. Even though rates of violent crime have been falling for more than a decade, and even though our economy is on the mend, we know that here, in Baltimore – and in cities across the country – more than 10 million of our fellow Americans are struggling to climb out of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and escape the snare of crime and violence.

They lack the resources so many others take for granted, and too often they are denied basic opportunities, like a decent education, adequate housing, and quality health care. And too often, they lack that most important resource – someone who cares.

But here in West Baltimore, you care. And more than that, you are coupling your compassion with action. And those of us in the federal government not only stand in appreciation and admiration of all that you are doing; we want to work with you to create safe and healthy neighborhoods that are sources of pride and strength.

And so we've awarded $2.2 million to the Baltimore City Health Department to support the city’s innovative – and effective – Safe Streets program. As you all well know, Safe Streets builds on violence mediation and de-escalation strategies pioneered successfully in Chicago – strategies that don't depend solely on suppression and enforcement but instead look to members of the community as assets to help steer young people away from violence.

And that approach is working here in Baltimore. A study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that, in the four participating Baltimore neighborhoods, the program was associated with significant declines in violence. In the Cherry Hill neighborhood alone, Safe Streets helped reduce homicides by 56 percent and non-fatal shootings by 34 percent.

So we're working together to help write a new chapter for Baltimore -- a new chapter that turns the page on violence in our communities.

And yet, while Baltimore is on a promising path, I know you all agree that we cannot afford to rest. We must continue to work collaboratively and collectively, across boundaries and disciplines; we must be willing to break free of the fences that define our individual personal and professional circles of concern to leverage resources and achieve problem-solving synergies we could never fully realize while working separately.

This type of collaboration, this partnership, is essential if we're ever going to overcome the challenges we confront. Persistent crime, failing schools, inadequate housing, and poor health -- these do not impact us one at a time, one separate from the other. It's no coincidence that communities with high student drop-out or truancy rates also experience greater delinquency and more crime. These problems coexist and reinforce one another. And so our approach must be equally multi-faceted, equally comprehensive.

That’s the approach this Administration is taking through a variety of measures. Through the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative, the White House is leading a federal effort to spark economic growth in five cities and one region, helping them to maximize resources and leverage partnerships with businesses, philanthropies, and non-profit organizations.

Another critical component of the Administration’s strategy is the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. The goal here is to help transform neighborhoods in distress into neighborhoods of opportunity by using federal support to leverage local assets and increase local capacity.

As part of this initiative, the Department of Justice launched the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation program to help communities develop place-based, community-oriented efforts to address neighborhood-level crime issues. And critical to this effort is the support we’re providing challenged cities to build their capacity to identify and leverage available resources – because, as we all know, not every community has the organization, infrastructure, and tools to access the help they need.

We’re also providing targeted support to the faith community. Some of you were on the call with the President two weeks ago, and you heard him talk about the special role faith leaders play in advancing change. There’s no question you are uniquely positioned to identify and solve problems in your communities – you have the credibility and clout necessary to make a difference.

We want to help you leverage that power. Our own Center of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships exists for that very purpose. The Director, Eugene Schneeberg, is here today to talk about what we’re doing – and to explore with you what more we can do. You’ll hear from him in the sessions that follow. And let me just say that today’s event is an excellent example of the outreach and strategic alignment with faith and community leaders that are important to the Department of Justice and President Obama.

Allow me to spend just a few moments touching on another area of mutual interest to you and the Department of Justice – the release and return of prison and jail inmates to our neighborhoods. At the heart of the Attorney General’s comprehensive Anti-Violence Strategy, led by our Nation’s U.S. Attorneys, to reduce and prevent crime is the “three-legged stool” of enforcement, prevention, and importantly, reentry.

Every year, some 700,000 people are released from America’s prisons, and millions more cycle through local jails. And if they’re not prepared, studies show they’re likely to re-offend and be re-arrested. In fact, the last major study of recidivism rates found that two out of every three released prisoners were re-arrested for a new offense, and about half were re-incarcerated. This has a profound impact on the communities to which these inmates return – and unfortunately, these communities often lack the resources needed to safely absorb former prisoners.

To help address this critical issue, under the Second Chance Act, we’ve made more than 400 awards totaling over $300 million to support adult and juvenile reentry programs. These programs support substance abuse treatment, housing assistance, job training, family reunification, and a host of other services designed to help former inmates make the transition back into their communities.

Funding also goes to efforts specifically aimed at reducing recidivism. A number of states are supporting groundbreaking policy initiatives that steer resources away from costly prison-building programs toward community-based – and evidence-based –approaches. A new analysis by the Council of State Governments shows that many states are seeing recidivism rates drop – and we’ve devoted Second Chance funding to build on these approaches in other states and communities.

We’re also addressing reentry and recidivism through a Federal Interagency Reentry Council chaired by the Attorney General. The heads of 20 agencies – including several Cabinet members – are actively involved, working to remove barriers to reentry so that motivated individuals can compete for employment, support their families, obtain stable housing, and contribute to their communities. One of the Council’s goals is to clarify federal policies that affect returning prisoners, in areas ranging from Medicaid and Social Security benefits to student aid and child support – and we’ve got a list of what we call “Reentry MythBusters” on our website -- www.nationalreentryresourcecenter.org -- to address misconceptions about many of these issues.

And because we know that finding a job is one of the best predictors of reentry success, the Reentry Council has focused on improving access to the employment market. For example, earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released guidance that discourages employers from denying jobs to applicants with criminal records if the record doesn’t relate to the job being considered.

And at the Justice Department, we're backing those efforts up. Just last month, we jointly announced with the Federal Trade Commission a $2.6 million civil penalty we obtained from in a nationwide employment background screening agency for allegedly failing to take reasonable steps to ensure criminal history information was current and accurate . This meant that employers sometimes received information that incorrectly listed criminal convictions on an individual's records when, in fact, that conviction had been expunged.

And all of this collaboration is paying off. Incarceration rates have begun to decline for the first time in nearly 40 years. More people are successfully completing parole and fewer are returning to prison for a new sentence or revocation. Crime rates are at their lowest levels in four decades. And some states are beginning to see reductions in their recidivism rates. So while we may not be there yet, there's no question we're moving in the right direction.

But ultimately, our success will come, not because the federal government removes red tape, or improves policy, or even provides more funding; no, our success will come because those with the greatest stake in the outcome – local leaders, community and faith groups, and citizens – they take action. Crime and economic displacement are not inevitable, but their defeat does require the vigilance that each of you has already shown – and must continue to show.

Because each time we bring opportunity to a community, we create safer streets; and with safer streets comes renewed hope; and with renewed hope comes changed lives.

Thank you for allowing me to share this day with you, and thank you for all you do on behalf of America’s communities.

Updated September 17, 2014