Thank you for that kind introduction, David, and for welcoming me here so warmly. I’m delighted to be with all of you in Pittsburgh this morning. It’s a true honor for me to participate in this LEAD awards ceremony, and I’m grateful to David and his office for inviting me to join you today as we recognize dedicated prosecutors and law enforcement agents for the tremendous work they do.
As members of federal, state and local law enforcement in Southwestern Pennsylvania, your mission first and foremost involves preventing crime from occurring in your communities, holding those who commit crime accountable and keeping the people of this region safe. So much of that work necessarily involves taking on violent crime. And, as the accomplishments of today’s awardees show – and I was extremely impressed when I read the descriptions of the individuals being recognized today – law enforcement agencies across Southwestern Pennsylvania are working together and achieving impressive results.
But there is a lot more to do. And what I want to speak with you about today is the view from Main Justice regarding the fight against violent crime.
As the father of two teenage boys, I care deeply about the issue of how to keep our communities, and particularly our children, safe. To a certain extent, 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 6 percent in 2010. Indeed, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced just two days ago that the nation’s homicide rate fell to its lowest level in four decades in 2010, to 4.8 homicides per 100,000 U.S. residents. In Pittsburgh, reflective of the national trend, violent crime has also decreased significantly in the past two decades, from a high in 1990 of 1,356 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants, to approximately 899 per 100,000 in 2010.
In spite of this overall progress, you all know as well as I do that violent crime remains an enormous challenge in our cities – from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, where I was earlier this week, to Los Angeles – and many places in between. We also know that children are more likely to suffer the consequences of violent crime than adults. Children are more likely than adults to be exposed to violence and crime, and this exposure can lead them to seek refuge in drugs and crime, rather than to pursue more hopeful paths. 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 – and one that you and I and law enforcement all across the country must work urgently to change.
The Justice Department is committed to fighting violent crime and to doing so strategically. 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. All three are essential.
In my position as the Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, my primary focus is criminal enforcement – the investigation and prosecution of individuals who commit violent, white collar and other crimes. I have the privilege of leading approximately 600 lawyers, whose collective mission is to enforce the nation’s federal criminal laws and to help develop and implement our criminal law policy.
Fighting violent crime is one of the Criminal Division’s top priorities. Within the Division, we have Sections dedicated to the investigation and prosecution of organized crime and gangs; narcotics trafficking; child exploitation; and, in the very worst cases, capital crimes. Because we prosecute cases all across the country that are often of national significance, our prosecutors work very closely with the nation’s 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, including here in Pennsylvania. Indeed, since David became the U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Pennsylvania, we have partnered with his office on a set of particularly significant gang prosecutions.
Last week, Aaron Ford, a member of the Brighton Place Crips, a criminal street gang that controlled an area in the Northside area of Pittsburgh, was sentenced to 88 months in prison for having participated in a pattern of racketeering activity that included robberies at gun point, attempted murders, narcotics distribution and witness intimidation. Ford is one of 26 defendants who are charged in that case, three of whom were also sentenced last month, to prison terms as long as 134 months. The case is being jointly prosecuted by David’s office and the Criminal Division, and is being investigated by ATF, the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, the Allegheny County Police Department, and the Allegheny Sheriff’s Office. This high-impact prosecution, like so many others that we bring, is a great example of how federal, state and local law enforcement can get things done when we work together.
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 district 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. But a key aspect of any violence prevention program will necessarily involve preventing youth violence, including by providing young people at risk with viable alternatives to lives of crime. And 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 programs. In fact, just last month, the Department announced that more than $240 million in grants are being awarded this year to 238 law enforcement agencies and municipalities across the country.
This past spring, I had the privilege of visiting the District of New Mexico, where I participated, with U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales, in a “graduation” ceremony in Albuquerque for students at Camp Triumph, a prevention program designed to steer middle school children away from drugs and crime. Camp Triumph is a program jointly sponsored by the Albuquerque Police Department, the New Mexico National Guard, the New Mexico Air National Guard, the Bernalillo County Sherriff’s Department, the Southwest Border High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque. Having seen firsthand how the program works, I know that programs like Camp Triumph are exactly the kinds of locally-developed, youth violence prevention programs we need – to encourage young people to develop their strengths, rather than to pursue what may often look like the easier path, toward drugs and crime.
If we can together work to prevent crime before it occurs, through programs like Camp Triumph and in other ways, we are of course achieving progress. The more we can prevent violence against children, reduce their exposure to crime in general and stop them from committing crimes themselves, the better chance we have of ensuring the safety of our cities and communities.
In the Criminal Division, we are working to assist U.S. Attorneys’ Offices around the country to develop strategies for preventing and reducing violent crime in their districts. Through our “Justice Teams” initiative, we have assembled a team of experienced violent crime prosecutors from the Criminal Division and four U.S. Attorneys’ Offices – in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Memphis, and Cleveland – to help other districts strengthen their anti-violent crime strategies. Among other things, our team is providing insight and training on how to identify the “worst of the worst” criminals in a particular community and target them for prosecution; and how to deter those individuals who are most at risk of committing violent crimes, including recently released offenders. In this way, we are helping to ensure that best practices in enforcement, prevention and re-entry developed in one city can be capitalized upon in other cities. In addition, the Criminal Division is leading a pilot project to conduct coordinated, multi-district investigations of gun traffickers who are sending guns into America’s cities. Given how much violent crime in America is fueled by easy access to firearms, this initiative, along with the gun trafficking prosecutions we are bringing, is critical.
As I mentioned earlier, preventing violent crime by and against our youth 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; the Department has announced that it will award $83 million dollars in Second Chance Act grants this year. Our preliminary assessment is that these programs are succeeding. As Attorney General Holder said when he convened the second meeting of the federal inter-agency Reentry Council with several other members of the Cabinet two months ago, “We must use every tool at our disposal to tear down the unnecessary barriers to economic opportunities and independence so that formerly incarcerated individuals can serve as productive members of their communities.”
I grew up in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, in New York City, during the 1960s and 1970s. During that time, I encountered gangs in my neighborhood. But the gangs of those days bear small resemblance to the many violent gangs we face today. I was able to attend my local public schools without fearing that I would be the victim of a violent crime on my way to school or inside school walls. Not every child in Queens or Pittsburgh or Cincinnati can say that today, which makes the challenges we all face that much more urgent. Violent crime remains a serious problem in so many cities, and young people, unfortunately, often bear the brunt of it.
You are all on the front lines of the fight against violent crime. Many of you here today are indeed being recognized precisely because of your courage in helping to make our communities safer. I commend you for that and congratulate all of you on your well-deserved awards.
David, thank you for inviting me to participate in this great event. It’s my privilege to be able to join you, the LEAD membership, and all of today’s awardees. Thank you.