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Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Criminal Justice Issues Forum


United States

Thank you, Congresswoman [Maxine] Waters, for those kind words – and for your leadership in helping to raise awareness, and build support, for reforms and improvements to America’s criminal justice system.  I know you have been a strong and consistent voice on these issues for many years.  And I am particularly grateful for everything that you and your colleagues from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation have done to bring us together for today’s important forum.

Of course, as we come together this afternoon, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of Monday’s deadly mass shooting – just a short distance from here, at the Washington Navy Yard.  Our hearts go out to all those who suffered injuries or lost friends and loved ones.  We are deeply grateful for the valor of law enforcement personnel whose brave actions prevented this tragedy from claiming even more lives.  In the days ahead – as our comprehensive investigation, led by the FBI, moves forward – I want to assure the families of those killed, and the American people, that the full resources of the Department of Justice will be made available to support our law enforcement partners.  And my colleagues and I remain committed to combating all forms of gun violence, preventing future tragedies, and working with Congress to fulfill the desire of the American people to take common-sense steps to keep guns from falling into the wrong hands.  It is past time for us to come to grips with the causes of these too frequent tragedies. 

As we work to advance these and other efforts, I’d like to thank all of you for your continued focus, and leadership, on a variety of issues you’re discussing this week – particularly when it comes to our nation’s criminal justice system.  I want to thank each of our expert panelists for lending their voices, their perspectives, and their expertise to this critical conversation.  It’s a privilege to join such a distinguished group – of friends, dedicated partners, and passionate advocates – in confronting persistent challenges; discussing recent advances, including the significant reforms I announced last month; and reaffirming our shared commitment to America’s founding and enduring principles – of equality, opportunity, and justice under law – that must continue to guide our steps forward.

Since this group’s founding more than three and a half decades ago, these are the values that have driven the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to help lead the fight against racial, economic, health, and social disparities wherever they are found.  Over the years – thanks to leaders in, and far beyond, this room – this organization has performed exemplary work, awarding more than $10 million in scholarships, along with countless internships and fellowships, in order to inspire and empower new generations of leaders.  You’ve come together – at events like this one – to tackle difficult and divisive issues, and to advance the cause of freedom and justice.  You’ve rallied public officials, business leaders, civil rights pioneers, and concerned citizens to help overcome the challenges that too often face underserved – and, in many cases, predominantly African-American – communities across the country.  And today, you’re standing on the leading edge of national efforts to expand and extend civil rights and voting rights protections; to build a brighter, more inclusive future for all of our citizens; and to forge the safer neighborhoods, the stronger communities, and the more just society that every American deserves.

As we come together this afternoon – here in our nation’s capital – few policy questions are more difficult, or more urgent, than the challenge we’ve gathered to discuss.  America’s criminal justice system is in need of targeted reform.  Throughout this country, too many Americans are trapped – and too many communities are weakened – by a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration.  Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long – and for no truly good law enforcement reason.  The U.S. prison population has grown at an astonishing rate over the last three decades – by almost 800 percent since 1980, despite the fact that America’s overall population has increased by only about a third.  As we speak, more than 219,000 federal inmates are currently behind bars.  Almost half are serving time for drug-related crimes.  And many have substance use disorders.

Outside of the federal system, an additional nine to 10 million people cycle through local jails each year.  And roughly 40 percent of former federal prisoners – along with more than 60 percent of former state prisoners – are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release, at great cost to American taxpayers. 

It’s clear, in a broad sense, that 20th-century criminal justice solutions are just not adequate to address the 21st century challenges we face.  There’s no question that incarceration will always have a role to play in our criminal justice system.  But there’s also no denying that widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels imposes significant human and moral costs – as well as a tremendous economic burden, totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone.

Especially in times of widespread budgetary difficulties and federal sequestration – when leaders at every level of government have been asked to do more with less – we must resolve, as a country and as a people, to do much better.

This is something the President and I have been talking about for as long as I’ve known him.  Together, we’ve worked hard over the years to protect our communities, to keep violent criminals off our streets, and to make sure those who break the law are held accountable.  And we’ve made progress.  But the President also believes – as I do – that our work is far from finished.

It’s time – in fact, it’s well past time – to take a fundamentally new approach.  And today, I am proud to join you in working to ensure that – in this area and many others – the scales of justice find a more appropriate balance. 

With this goal in mind, at the beginning of this year, I launched a targeted Justice Department review of our federal criminal justice system.  Last month, in a speech before the American Bar Association, I announced the results of this review – which include a series of sweeping changes to strengthen this system, to address problems and inefficiencies, and to make the system smarter, fairer, and more effective for everyone in this country.  We can begin by taking a pragmatic approach – and fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal, low-level drug crimes.  Some federal drug statutes that mandate inflexible sentences – regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case – do not serve public safety when they’re applied indiscriminately.  Because they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences, they breed disrespect for the system.  Used inappropriately, they can be counterproductive.  And they have had an unmistakable destabilizing effect on particular communities – largely poor and of color.

Last month, I took action to change this – by modifying the Justice Department’s charging policies so that people charged with certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenses – individuals without ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels – will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.  Instead, they will be charged with offenses for which the appropriate sentences are better suited to their individual conduct.

I am pleased to announce today that the Department has issued new guidance to apply our updated charging policy not only to new matters but also to pending cases where the defendant was charged before the policy was issued but is still awaiting adjudication of guilt.  By reserving the most severe prison terms for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers or kingpins, we can better enhance public safety.  We can increase our focus on proven strategies for deterrence and rehabilitation.  And we can do so while making our expenditures smarter and more productive.

I want to thank all of the Department’s hardworking prosecutors and investigators, as well as our state and local partners, who handle these cases on a daily basis – standing on the front lines of our efforts to combat drug crimes and protect our citizens from the devastating effects of drug abuse.  Their work is tremendously important, and it is valued.  And these policy changes – whose implementation they are leading – will help ensure that their work continues to have the greatest possible positive impact in communities across the country. 

I also want to thank members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and many others who are here today – especially Congresswoman Waters – for their steady leadership in helping to build bipartisan support for similar reforms in Congress.  Alongside dedicated colleagues like Senators Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul, you’re advocating for promising legislation that would reform drug mandatory minimums, keep our communities safer – and, ultimately, save our country billions of dollars.

In addition – in recent months – the Justice Department also has updated its framework for considering compassionate release for some inmates who face extraordinary or compelling circumstances, and who pose no threat to the public.  Of course, as our primary responsibility, we must ensure public safety.  But considering the applications of certain people with convictions for nonviolent offenses – such as individuals seeking release on medical grounds, or elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences – is the right thing to do.  It is the smart thing to do.  And it will allow the Bureau of Prisons to evaluate compassionate release applications through a careful review process before each case comes before a judge – who will make a final determination on whether release is warranted.

Appropriate use of this statutory authority will enable us to use our limited resources to incarcerate those who pose the greatest threat.  With this goal in mind, the Department is also working to promote and strengthen diversion programs – such as drug rehabilitation and community service initiatives – that can provide more effective alternatives to incarceration for some who come into contact with our criminal justice system.  Our United States Attorneys are leading the way in this regard – working with members of the judiciary to meet safety imperatives while avoiding incarceration in some cases.  More broadly, through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, the Justice Department is bringing state leaders, local stakeholders, private partners, and federal officials together to reform corrections and criminal justice practices.  Already, these efforts have shown tremendous promise.

A total of 17 states – supported by the Department, and led by governors and legislators of both parties – have in recent years directed funding away from prison construction and toward evidence-based programs and services.  Many of these states have seen drops in recidivism rates and prison populations, without negatively impacting public safety.  As a result, while our federal prison system has continued to slowly expand, significant state-level reductions have led to three consecutive years of decline in America’s overall prison population – including, in 2012, the largest drop ever experienced in a single year.

These results, and many others, prove that these strategies can work.  Common-sense criminal justice reforms can make a profound, positive difference in the lives of millions of people.  And that’s why I have directed every U.S. Attorney to designate a Prevention and Reentry Coordinator in his or her district – to ensure that this work is, and will remain, a top priority – and to help more formerly incarcerated individuals successfully rejoin their communities; become productive members of society; and strengthen crime-afflicted neighborhoods across the country. 

After all, this is about much more than fairness for those who are released from prison.  It’s a matter of public safety.  It makes plain economic sense.  And it’s predicated on the notion that – although the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes will always be necessary – in the fight against crime and violence, we will never be able to prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. 

On the contrary: my colleagues and I recognize – as you do – that we must never stop being tough on crime.  But it’s past time that we recommit ourselves to an approach that is both smarter and more efficient when battling crime and the conditions – and individual choices – that breed it.  So as we move forward with these and other reforms – and as we consider additional improvements in the future – we will continue to stand and work alongside you, drawing upon your experience, relying on your expertise, and depending on your engagement to refine and strengthen each new proposal.

Together, we have an urgent obligation to improve our system and tackle the most difficult questions and the most costly problems.  We know that these reforms, and others we may consider in the months and years ahead, will not take hold overnight.

But I’m confident that – as long as we work together, and continue to support and stand alongside the dedicated prosecutors and investigators who work hard every day to keep our communities safe – we will be able to bring about the positive difference we seek.  By your presence here today – and your participation in this important forum – the leaders and supporters of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation have reaffirmed your dedication to this fight, and your commitment to advancing the work we share.  On behalf of my colleagues across the U.S. Department of Justice and throughout the Obama Administration, I thank you for your passion, your input, and your ideas.  I look forward to working closely with you to carry these efforts into the future.  And I will always be grateful to count you as colleagues – and as critical partners – as we strive to forge the safer, more equal, and more just society that all of our citizens deserve.

Thank you, once again, for all that you do.  I appreciate the chance to be here today.  And I’m counting on you all.

Updated August 18, 2015