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Associate Attorney General Tony West Delivers Remarks at the
National Network of Hospital-based Violence Intervention Programs Conference


United States

Thank you, [U.S. Attorney] Zane [Memeger], for that kind introduction and for the terrific work you and your staff are doing to lead and support community-based violence prevention efforts here in Philadelphia and throughout the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. 

I want to express my appreciation to Dr. Corbin, Dr. Fein, and all our friends at the National Network of Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Programs for the critical work they are leading, particularly in distressed communities and among young men of color.  My sincere thanks, as well, to Dr. Rich and the faculty and staff of the Drexel University School of Public Health for hosting us and for their outstanding commitment to reducing violence in our inner cities.

Before coming here, I had the opportunity to watch three compelling videos produced under the auspices of the National Network – and I appreciate Doctors Corbin and Fein sharing those with me.  Some of you may have seen them as well.  They feature young people whose lives have been torn apart by violence. 

There’s the story of a teenage girl whose brother was in and out of juvenile detention from a young age and who was herself the victim of a brutal beating.
There’s the young man who describes living in perpetual fear of being shot, who naps during the afternoons because he’s too afraid to fall asleep at night.

There’s the boy who composed a video letter to his absent father, asking why he was never there to help him make sense of the mayhem going on all around him.

It struck me as I watched those videos, as it strikes me whenever I talk to young people who live among crime and distress, that something has gone very wrong when kids like these – fundamentally good kids – have to live with violence as their frame of reference. 

Something is absolutely wrong when a teenager who should be thinking about homework and sports and dating spends his time worrying about how he’s going to make it through the day alive. 

And there’s something terribly wrong when, instead of looking forward to the future and all the wonderful things that should lie ahead, a young person thinks about how bad the world is and doubts that the future holds any place for him. 

There’s something wrong when violence dictates the terms of a young life.

I’m grateful that there are organizations like the ones represented by the National Network – groups like Project Ujima in Milwaukee, Caught in the Crossfire in Oakland, and Healing Hurt People right here in Philadelphia – working to end the cycle of violence in our nation’s cities and to bring hope and healing to troubled youth. 

And I’m proud that through our Office for Victims of Crime, we are helping to support this great work.  There are now 22 programs like these across the country, providing trauma-informed care to young people injured by violence and giving these kids better options than retaliation and more violence.  I commend them all – and everyone here – for making this your mission.

The problem, as everyone here knows, is an urgent one, one that cries out for the kind of approach the National Network is promoting.  It’s a problem that disproportionately affects our boys and young men of color. 

We know that African-American males between the ages of 16 and 19 have the highest rate of violent victimization of any race and any age group.  We know that black youth make up just 16 percent of the overall youth population but more than half of the juvenile population arrested for committing a violent crime.  We know that too often, boys and young men of color lack access to critical victim services.  And we know that for African-American boys and young men between the ages of 10 and 24, homicide is not only the leading cause of death, it results in more deaths than the next four leading causes combined.

Yes, violent crime in our country on the whole is down, and that’s something to celebrate.  But there are still far too many communities where violence remains prevalent, far too many kids thinking about their own mortality when they should be thinking about their future. 

It’s a complicated, difficult challenge, and one not easily met.  But I would offer this:  As entrenched as violence sometimes appears, it is not inevitable.  When people of good will band together and establish norms of behavior; when local agencies and community and faith-based groups engage with one another in a spirit of true problem-solving; and when stakeholders use evidence-based approaches like the ones represented by the National Network; we can reduce violence and we can improve outcomes for our youth.

This isn’t just hopeful speculation.  We know it can work because we’ve seen it work and the research tells us it can be done.  Three years ago, under the leadership of the White House, we launched a major effort called the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention to build on some of these successes.  This is a collaboration of several federal agencies and 10 cities, Philadelphia among them.  We’re bringing together citizens, community and faith-based groups, law enforcement officials, public health professionals, business and philanthropic leaders – all the stakeholders – to create prevention strategies tailored to the needs of each community. 

It’s exciting to see the level of support we’ve gotten for this effort, from the highest levels of the Administration, but also – and perhaps most importantly – from local leaders and from community members themselves.  We’re all working together to design bold, new strategies that address some of these communities’ most intractable problems, and this work is showing tremendous promise.  In fact, tomorrow and Friday, the Departments of Justice and Education are convening the Third Annual Summit on Preventing Youth Violence in the D.C.-area to highlight and share promising and evidenced-based practices to prevent youth violence.

What’s important to remember about the Forum is that it takes a comprehensive approach to youth violence.  This isn’t just about enforcement, because enforcement alone isn’t the answer.  We can’t expect to arrest our way to safer communities, especially if we hope to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of community members – and the research shows that perceptions of fairness in police practices, not just vigorous suppression, figure prominently in reducing crime.

So if our goal is to achieve sustainable reductions in violence – and to do it justly and effectively – we must augment enforcement with prevention and intervention, particularly interventions that recognize the devastating biological and psychological effects of trauma.

Intervention is critical to stopping the cycle of violence because that is where we can expect to have the greatest long-term effect, especially with kids who are exposed to violence early in their lives.  No doubt, many of you are aware of the troubling incidence of children’s exposure to violence.  Our research shows that more than 60 percent of American children are exposed to some form of violence, crime, or abuse, ranging from brief encounters as witnesses to serious violent episodes as victims.  Almost 40 percent – two out of five kids – are direct victims of 2 or more violent acts.  We should be shocked by these statistics.

And the consequences of this exposure to violence can be serious, from poor academic performance and drug and alcohol abuse to long-term psychological harm and – a concern for everyone involved in public safety – later criminal behavior.  We have a robust and expanding body of research that validates our concerns.  One recent study of children living in a low-income neighborhood who were regularly exposed to shootings and other violent events showed that they were 30 times more likely to have learning and behavior problems than children who were not exposed to the same kind of trauma.

Now fortunately, we know that young people are resilient and that effective intervention – especially early intervention – can counter the effects of violence in a young child’s life. 

In 2010, the Attorney General responded to this challenge by announcing a new initiative called Defending Childhood.  The goal of Defending Childhood is to improve our knowledge about what works to lessen the impacts of children’s exposure to violence and to prevent that exposure from leading to a future of antisocial, criminal or other problematic behavior. 

And in the course of our work with Defending Childhood we discovered some terrific programs out there – in communities across the country – that can reverse the damage done by violence.  We’re raising awareness of these approaches and working to get them into communities where children are at particular risk of encountering violence.  We’re also responding to recommendations from a national task force on children’s exposure to violence, which was co-chaired by Joe Torre and Bob Listenbee, who is the former Chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia and now serves as the Administrator of our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.  And central to those recommendations is the need for trauma-informed treatment for children exposed to violence.

The task force report also emphasizes the role of the community in preventing and reducing violence.  We’ve learned from successful models, like the Group Violence Reduction Strategy pioneered in Boston and Chicago’s CureViolence program, that intervention has a much better chance of success when residents are involved in establishing and communicating norms of acceptable behavior. 

Through a program called the Community-Based Violence Prevention Demonstration Program, our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention supports evidence-based approaches built on these models.  Last year, we awarded a $1.5 million grant under this program to support the Philadelphia CeaseFire project.  Local partners in this city are working together, combining data and street knowledge to identify where to concentrate anti-violence efforts, provide intervention, and work with neighborhood residents to change norms. 

And as we look at where crime is occurring and who is committing it, we must also remember – as the videos I mentioned earlier remind us – that while we must insist on accountability from young offenders, we must also provide the necessary guidance to re-direct kids from what seems to them to be a hopeless cycle of ongoing violence and victimization. 

So as part of the Department’s Vision 21 Initiative, led by our Office for Victims of Crime, we’ve called for a re-assessment of the way we respond to these young victims, recognizing that our system for service delivery should be more flexible and should meet them where they are. 

For example, we are supporting an effort called the Hidden Victims Project:  a program operated by the Center for Court Innovation in New York and centered in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn.  The goal of this effort is to add trauma-based victim services to an already-existing program designed to steer high-risk youth away from violence and other harmful choices and toward healthy lifestyles.

Programs like this one help us to meet the needs of young people who encounter violence on a daily basis.  They are showing these kids that there is a better way to deal with violence than retaliation and more violence.  And after all, that’s what these young people really want.  It’s what we all want.

And the National Network and its members -- you are helping us get there.  You’re showing us a better way to respond to kids at risk and reclaim our young people.  And although your work often occurs without fanfare or recognition, behind closed doors or in the quiet counsel of one-on-one conversations, your success is measured time and again where it counts  most:  in the hearts you touch, the souls you enrich, the doors you open and the lives you change. 

Thank you for your time, and thank you for all that you do for our Nation’s young people.

Updated September 17, 2014