Thank you, Karol [Mason], for those kind words; for your outstanding leadership of the Office of Justice Programs; and for your ongoing commitment to the cause that brings us together. I’d like to extend a special welcome to the United States Attorneys who are with us today – including Barbara McQuade, Melinda Haag, and Kenneth Polite.
It is an honor to stand with you this morning – and to join so many dedicated leaders and passionate citizens from across the country in opening our third annual Summit on Preventing Youth Violence. As Karol just said, we gather this year in a moment of tremendous challenge and great consequence – when resources are scarce, but the urgency of the problems before us has been brought into stark focus.
We know that the majority of America’s children – more than 60 percent of them – have been exposed to crime, violence, and abuse – as victims or as witnesses. We’ve seen that violence among or directed toward our young people can take many forms. And we understand that exposure can happen virtually anywhere: in our schools; on our streets; in our homes; and even online, where kids face new and evolving threats every day. Studies have shown that young people who are exposed to violence can suffer a range of consequences that have the potential to cause long-term physical, psychological, and emotional harm. These children often face elevated risks of failing in school, suffering from anxiety and depression, or turning to drug or alcohol abuse later in life. They are more likely than their peers to develop chronic illnesses or have difficulty forming emotional attachments. And far too many continue the cycle of violence by harming others.
Clearly, the consequences of inaction in the face of such trauma would be too great to ignore. And the associated costs – in human, moral, and even economic terms – are far too much to bear. In fact, the cost of failing to intervene in the life of a young person who’s at risk of becoming delinquent could add up to more than $3 million over the course of his or her lifetime. And the incremental costs of violence and abuse on America’s health care system could amount to roughly 37.5 cents out of every dollar that’s spent on health care.
But this will always be about much more than simple dollars and cents.
As we speak, the Administration is working diligently to implement the Affordable Care Act – which will have a significant impact on the provision of physical, mental, and behavioral health services to young people who are at risk and in need. And, while this is an important start, I’m pleased to say that it’s only the beginning.
Like many of you, I have seen the devastating impact that violence has on young people, on families, and on entire communities. During my time as a judge on the Superior Court here in Washington – and later, as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia – I witnessed these consequences firsthand, as, day after day, lines of young men, young defendants, streamed into my courtroom. In almost every case, these individuals had long histories of interactions with social services – and educational and juvenile justice systems – which had failed to interrupt the dangerous and potentially avoidable trajectory that had led them there.
I quickly learned that – as a nation, and as a people – we must resolve to do much better. We must identify strategies for getting involved earlier; addressing the violence, the poverty, and the distress that takes too many kids off the track of normal development; and providing intervention resources at every phase of the “trauma-to-violence” process.
For me – and I know for all of you – this has always been much more than a professional obligation. As our nation’s Attorney General – and as the father of three wonderful kids – it is also a personal priority. Although we come together today as law enforcement executives, policymakers, public health professionals, educators, elected officials, and other community leaders – our actions must be rooted, first and foremost, in what we can accomplish as parents and as friends; as mentors and advocates; as Scout leaders and little league coaches. Our efforts will only be successful if we can ensure that our kids grow up in neighborhoods where adults can reach out to them – and where moms and dads, teachers and faith leaders, grandparents and neighbors can be trusted and positive influences on their lives.
That’s why Summits like this one – and efforts like those you’re leading in each of our Forum cities – are so important. It’s why the work you’re doing to rally local stakeholders to improve law enforcement, increase support for violence prevention efforts, and expand access to family and social services – is so critical. And it’s why the Obama Administration – led, in part, by this Justice Department – has stepped to the forefront of these efforts, making an unprecedented commitment to help strengthen prevention, intervention, enforcement, and reentry programs in each of the communities represented here.
At the heart of this commitment is our National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention. Thanks to your leadership – from Boston to Camden; from Chicago to Detroit; from Memphis to Minneapolis; from New Orleans to Philadelphia; and from Salinas to San Jose – we’re building a multidisciplinary approach, bringing together a range of allies – and applying innovative, data-driven strategies for contending with local challenges. As you’re discussing this week, these efforts are showing tremendous promise – improving lives and winning praise from experts as well as local residents. And today, we affirm that we must do more than just keep up the great work. It’s time to take it to a new level.
I’m proud to report that my colleagues and I are taking a variety of steps to do just that. And nowhere is this clearer than in the work of our Office of Justice Programs, under the leadership of Assistant Attorney General Mason – who’s been a strong voice on this issue for many years, ever since she helped create our Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence and led the Defending Childhood Initiative I launched in 2010.
Thanks to leaders like her, the Justice Department is moving aggressively to tackle the most serious problems and provide assistance to the most afflicted areas. Last month – as part of the Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative to strengthen America’s criminal justice system – I announced that we’ve convened a new Task Force to respond to the extreme levels of violence faced by far too many American Indian and Alaska Native children. We’ve launched a national public awareness campaign to call attention to the challenges too many young people face.
We’re working hand-in-hand with partners across the federal government – and far beyond – to disrupt the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” And we’re fighting to end the zero-tolerance school disciplinary policies that transform too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity into gateways to the criminal justice system. A child who has committed a minor disciplinary offense should end up in the principal’s office – and not in a police precinct.
Of course, my colleagues and I also recognize – as you do – that these problems can only be addressed cooperatively, by entire communities – through the kind of collective action and comprehensive effort that this Forum is helping to institutionalize. By your presence here this morning, and the work you’re advancing across the country every day – all of you are proving that, despite the challenges before us, we’ll be able to keep making the positive difference, and securing the progress, that America’s young people deserve. I’m confident in where these efforts will lead us in the critical days ahead. I want you to know that I’m proud to count you as colleagues, and partners, in our efforts to prevent and respond to youth violence. I thank you, once again, for your tireless work on behalf of our youngest citizens. And I look forward to all that we must – and will – accomplish together in the months and years to come.
At this time, it’s my privilege to turn things over to Cecelia Muñoz. Please join me in welcoming her to the stage.