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Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West Speaks at the Youth Violence Champions of Change Event


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Jon for that introduction. I need to thank Jon Carson and the staff of the White House Office of Public Engagement for shining a light on this issue that is so fundamental to the health of our nation. Youth violence is a tough issue and one that many would rather not address, but is for that very reason that we have to push even harder to make sure it captures everyone’s attention. I’d also like to thank Eugene Schneeberg and the Department of Justice Center for Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships who worked very hard to make today happen.

Let me begin by bringing greetings from the Attorney General.  As you know, he started this week by kicking-off the National Forum on Youth Violence’s two-day summit, which, by all accounts, was a great success. He wanted me to be sure to express his appreciation to all of you for the work you’re doing to reduce violence and bring real, positive change to your communities. 

Because the issue of preventing Youth Violence is one that Attorney General Holder and I are deeply committed to. As he often says, fighting violence in our cities and building a fair and effective justice system – a system that keeps citizens safe and maintains its legitimacy in the eyes of everyone it serves – has never been more difficult, and never more urgent.

I think it’s noteworthy that we’ve all gathered here today, on what is the 44th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to recognize the great work of our 12 Youth Violence Prevention champions today. Dr. King often spoke of life’s most persistent question – “What are you doing for others” – and the Champions of Change we celebrate here – and those of you work with them and in communities throughout the country – you are answering that question everyday, with persistence and patience and resilience. Like him, you are catalysts for change; catalysts for peace.

And I, for one, know just how hard and challenging your work is. Fifteen years ago as a federal prosecutor, I too often witnessed the devastating effects crime, and in particular violent crime, can have on individuals, families, and on communities.

And I know firsthand that prosecuting a crime after it has occurred is a critically important part of achieving justice, because let’s be clear: Those who perpetrate those acts must be sanctioned, must be held accountable, and the needs of crime victims must be met. But I also know we must work diligently at every level in our society—in our homes, in our communities, in schools, and houses of worship to prevent violent acts from occurring in the first place.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), homicide is the second leading cause of death of youth, with an average of 14 young people murdered every day. That’s unacceptable.

And we know through our own research at the Department of Justice that a majority of kids – over 60 percent – regardless of race – are exposed to some form of violence, crime, or abuse, ranging from brief encounters as witnesses to serious violent episodes or as direct victims.  Tragically, many are victimized repeatedly.

And while it’s true that crime rates nationally are at an historic low, we know that too many of our communities are still struggling to beat back a rising tide of violence, much of it committed by and against young people. 

And yet we also know that youth violence is not inevitable. We can help to prevent that violence by intervening, counseling, and rewarding good behavior with positive reinforcements, by mentoring and by spending quality time with our youth, expanding their horizons by exposing them to all the world has to offer beyond what they see in their respective neighborhoods. 

Research and experience demonstrate that when communities engage in multi-disciplinary partnerships and adopt balanced, data-driven approaches, violence decreases while desirable outcomes for youth improve. Because a comprehensive initiative requires a balanced approach that makes room for prevention, intervention and reentry efforts in addition to enforcement.  Prevention and intervention programming are critical if we hope to stop the cycle of violence. 

That’s why the work you do and the work of the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention is so essential to our shared future. Together, we are joining citizens, community and faith-based organizations, law enforcement, public health professionals, business and philanthropic leaders, and others to address youth and gang violence in a strategic, comprehensive manner.

And today we recognize the outstanding work and accomplishments that you all have made in the areas of prevention, intervention, enforcement, and reentry.  Your efforts and the six cities that you represent – Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Salinas and the city where I grew up and my parents live still, San Jose, California – are at the forefront of strategies that are entering the implementation phase of the comprehensive violence prevention plans.

And I want you to know that we at the Department of Justice are working with you, side by side, in your labors to curb youth violence. For instance, many of you are familiar with the Attorney General’s Defending Childhood Initiative, which seeks to prevent children’s exposure to violence and direct victimization; to mitigate the effects when violence occurs; and to augment research and increase public awareness about the issue. Because the research confirms what many of us witness in our own communities: that when children are exposed to violence they are more likely to suffer from depression, alcohol and substance abuse, poor academic performance and sadly, are more likely to perpetrate violence themselves.

So focusing on our youth meets not just individual or family concerns; it can address the concerns of all of us – young and old; teachers and students; employers and employees. This is a responsibility of the entire community and, as you’ve shown, successful anti-violence intervention efforts require the active engagement of a cross-section of community residents. 

And it’s not only kids who’ve been exposed to or are direct victims of violence who suffer. The research also tells us that children of incarcerated parents often struggle with depression, learning problems, and aggression, undermining their own chances of success. And the reverberations of this hit particularly hard in African American and Latino communities, where the incarceration rates for young men in particular are shockingly high. 

So one of the aspects of our Defending Childhood initiative invites us to look at ways to factor this data-driven knowledge into our criminal justice policies, whether by making it easier for kids to remain in touch with their parents while in prison or through mentoring and other programs that address the needs of these children. 

And part of that is looking at family reunification as a vital element in inmate reentry planning.  Almost all prisoners and jail inmates will be released at some point, and studies show that connections with one’s family are one of the best indicators of potential reentry success.  We’re making a strong effort to incorporate reunification under our Second Chance Act programs.  We now support more than 370 Second Chance reentry projects, and the President’s recent budget request reflects a continued commitment to this important program.

Equally important, we must ensure that victims are getting the services they need.  Sadly, just as young men of color are overrepresented in the corrections system, they are also too often the victims of youth or gang violence. Our Office for Victims of Crime is supporting two projects that are designed to help improve our response.  One project will support a network of hospital-based violence intervention programs to provide victim services along with trauma care, so that the ultimate outcome of a hospital visit is healing and not retaliation.

A second project will support outreach workers and violence interrupters who can help steer high-risk youth away from harmful choices and toward positive, healthy behaviors.  I think these efforts will give us some good examples to build on in our work to reduce violence in our most troubled communities.

At the Department of Justice, we are proud to continue to work with you to stop youth violence and to help restore futures for our young men and women in communities across this Nation. All of us realize that in your towns and cities, and here in Washington as well, times are tough and budgets are tight. But we also know that we fail to invest in our young people at our own peril.

So let us pool our ideas, our resources, and most importantly our collective will in this common cause. I know the issues can seem daunting, and I know the work is not easy. But there is good news, there’s reason for optimism, and that’s people like you.

Everyday you are confronting these issues. Everyday you’re making the lives of young people better, more hopeful. Everyday you are answering what Dr. King called “The Knock at Midnight,” that challenge that stirs you to answer pressing human need with personal engagement.

Your work is an investment. And the return on that investment is not measured in dollars and cents. It’s far more valuable than that. It’s measured in the hearts you touch; the souls you enrich; the doors you open; and the lives you change.

Thank you and thank you for all that you do.

Updated September 17, 2014