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Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division Speaks at the National District Attorneys Association Summer Conference


Sun Valley, ID
United States

Thank you for that kind introduction, Scott Burns, and for welcoming me here so warmly. I’m delighted to be here in Sun Valley with all of you this morning. You certainly picked a beautiful place to hold this important conference, and it’s my privilege to be able to join you.

Since I became Assistant Attorney General, over two years ago, I’ve had a number of occasions to speak with state, local, and tribal law enforcement officers about a range of topics, but I’ve never had the opportunity to speak with this many District Attorneys, Assistant District Attorneys, and other state prosecutors at one time. As Scott said, I began my career as an ADA in Manhattan, so I truly feel at home with you all.

The four years I spent prosecuting crime in New York City in the 1980s were among the most formative of my career. Working under the legendary Bob Morgenthau, it was in the Manhattan DA’s office that I learned how to try cases, relate to witnesses and crime victims, and prosecute the kinds of crimes that you all prosecute every day – the ones that most affect the communities in which you live. It was a job I absolutely loved.

The mandate I have now is, of course, different. As Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, I have the privilege of leading nearly 600 lawyers who enforce the nation’s federal criminal laws and help to develop and implement our criminal law policy.

The Criminal Division is, like many of your offices, split into Sections, each of which focuses on a particular enforcement area. Together, the Sections of the Criminal Division face a tremendously broad array of threats, from violence along the Southwest border – which I know we’re going to be discussing on a panel later this morning – to international narcotics trafficking, cybercrime, child exploitation, and many other kinds of crimes. Our prosecutors work very closely with the 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, often investigating and prosecuting cases together; and, every day, we work with federal, state, and local law enforcement officers around the country.

Given that we are charged with prosecuting cases from Alaska to Washington, D.C., and everywhere in-between, our mission is necessarily broad, and we generally have to pursue cases that we hope may have a deterrent effect beyond the districts in which they are being prosecuted.

You, on the other hand, have the equally important role of investigating and prosecuting crime in the neighborhoods and communities in which you live and work, and helping to make those communities safe. Often, your cases are the most important, and high profile, ones in your area – the cases that your mothers would have heard about even if you weren’t in the DA’s office.

Different as our roles may be, though, there are certain issues that, as prosecutors, we are all focused on together.

The one I want to focus primarily on this morning is violent crime. Of course, one of your central preoccupations, as state and local prosecutors, is how to cope with violent crime in your cities and districts. On many occasions, I have heard about these problems from you directly. To take one example, I understand Lemuel Martinez is here, and he can certainly tell you, as he told me when I was visiting with him in Belen, New Mexico, last month, how significant the problems of gangs and drugs are in his community. I have no doubt that many of you face similar challenges – as we did in Queens in New York City, when I was growing up, and as we do today in Washington, D.C.

To be sure, we have reasons to be optimistic. Violent crime has been decreasing across the country since the early 1990s, and in recent years this trend has continued. According to statistics compiled by the FBI, violent crime decreased 5.3 percent nationwide in 2009, and an additional 5.5 percent in 2010. In Boise, for example, reflective of the national trend, violent crime has decreased significantly in the past two decades, from a high in 1993 of 441 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants, to a low of 259 per 100,000 in 2010.

In spite of this overall progress, though, as we all know, violent crime remains an enormous challenge, particularly in our cities. In some high crime areas, violent crime is even increasing. At the federal level, the Justice Department is committed to fighting violent crime across the country, in concert with state, local, and tribal law enforcement. Attorney General Eric Holder recently challenged every United States Attorney in the country to develop a local anti-violence strategy that includes, first, vigorous criminal enforcement efforts; second, effective crime prevention programs; and third, strong prisoner reentry initiatives. We view all three as essential.

In my position as Assistant Attorney General, my primary focus is criminal enforcement; and fighting violent crime is one of the Criminal Division’s top priorities. An example of the work we are doing in this area is our effort to beat back the violence and devastation created by the Mexican drug cartels and related gangs. In March of this year, for example, in partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in El Paso, Texas – and with the help of state and local law enforcement in Texas and New Mexico – we announced the unsealing of an indictment against 35 members and associates of the Barrio Azteca gang, including ten who are alleged to have participated in the brutal and senseless murders last year in Juarez, Mexico, of a U.S. Consulate employee, her husband, and the husband of a second Consulate employee.

Indeed, as a sign of how much energy we devote to the horrific problem of cartel-related violence along the Southwest border, I have personally traveled to Mexico five times in the past two years – and my Section Chiefs and other prosecutors have been there literally dozens of times – to meet with our Mexican counterparts and to assist in finding ways for our two governments, and state and local law enforcement, to find solutions together. There can be no doubt, as those of you in border states know too well, that we face enormous challenges. But we are making progress; and, in the Criminal Division, we are committed to doing everything we can to help bring violent criminals along the border to justice.

As you know better than anyone, prosecuting the very worst criminals in our society is challenging, resource-intensive work; and it remains the central component of the Justice Department’s anti-violence strategy. But it is not the only component. In the Attorney General’s view – and I share his vision wholeheartedly – fighting violent crime requires more than just putting offenders in jail. It also requires preventing crime before it occurs, and smoothing the transition of released prisoners back into society.

Prevention and reentry programs that work in one city may not work in another, which is why we believe that effective anti-violence strategies need to be developed in concert with state, local, and tribal officials. In every city, though, a key component of an anti-violence program will necessarily involve preventing youth violence, including by providing young people at risk with viable alternatives to lives of crime. According to a recent national study sponsored by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, more than 60 percent of the children surveyed reported having been exposed to violence in the past year – either directly, as a victim; or indirectly, as a witness, for example, or as the family member, friend, or neighbor of a victim. That’s a staggering figure. To help prevent the kinds of crimes that you and I end up investigating and prosecuting, the Justice Department is committed to supporting anti-youth violence programs across the country – through grants administered by the Office of Justice Programs, the Office of Violence Against Women, and the Community Oriented Policing Services, and through community-based prevention and reentry programs.

As I indicated earlier, preventing violent crime is not enough. There are over two million people – 1 in 100 adults – presently incarcerated in the United States. Approximately 95 percent of all prisoners are eventually released. A majority of them are rearrested, and approximately half are reincarcerated. With a recidivism rate this high, it is absolutely critical that, in addition to strong criminal enforcement and robust crime prevention programs, we also assist prisoners with their transitions back into society – through substance abuse treatment, employment and housing assistance, mentoring programs, and in other ways as well. These efforts are necessary to give released prisoners an opportunity to turn their lives around and, more importantly, to steer them away from committing more crime.

Last year, the Justice Department awarded close to $100 million under the Second Chance Act to support reentry programs. Our preliminary assessment is that these programs are succeeding. And, as Attorney General Holder said last month to a gathering at the Department of Labor, it is critical that we work with Congress in the coming months to secure the Act’s timely reauthorization.

Before I conclude my remarks this morning, and I hope there will be plenty of time left for questions, I want to discuss one other issue with you, on which we are all focused: our ethical obligations as prosecutors.

As I and others have detailed elsewhere, the Justice Department has taken a series of far-reaching steps in the past two years to ensure that all federal prosecutors consistently meet their disclosure obligations. These measures – such as providing guidance to federal prosecutors on gathering and reviewing discoverable information and making timely disclosure to defendants, or instituting a requirement that all federal prosecutors take annual discovery training – are important steps forward. And I think it’s fair to say that, as a Department, we are in a better place today than we were two-and-a-half years ago. And I suspect that is true for many DA’s offices across the country as well.

Certain defense lawyers nevertheless continue to want to try and turn honest mistakes into instances of misconduct. This kind of gamesmanship is unfortunate. The steps we have taken go further than what the Supreme Court requires. And they go well beyond what any prior Administration has done. That’s a fact. Do we need to remain vigilant? Absolutely. At the same time, together, we cannot – and I know we will not – shy away from taking hard cases, or otherwise shrink from our obligation to investigate and prosecute criminal activity without fear or favor, because of the possibility that an opportunistic defense lawyer will try and make hay out of an honest mistake.

As prosecutors, we occupy a unique role in the criminal justice system. Our job is not just to win cases, but also to do justice in every case. I think prosecutors are more aware of their ethical obligations today than they may ever have been – and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing.

We are living in an austere fiscal environment. The federal government, including the Justice Department, is experiencing significant budget cuts across the board, and you are no doubt experiencing similar pressures. As a result, we need to find ways to be more creative, with fewer resources. And we need to work together to every extent we can. Today, I can assure you of one thing: You will not find a more enthusiastic partner in a head of the Criminal Division than you have in me. Two of my hires – the Chief of the Division’s Organized Crime and Gang Section, Jim Trusty, and the Chief of our Public Integrity Section, Jack Smith – are both experienced former state prosecutors; and we have many other former ADAs in our ranks. In short, given my own experience, I will always trust in you – and have your back.  

It’s a privilege to be here. I often reflect on my days in the Manhattan DA’s office as among the most important in my life and career. I’m looking forward to participating in the panel later this morning and, in the meantime, to answering any questions you have. Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today.

Updated September 17, 2014