Thank you, Mayor R.T. Rybak, for your kind words – and for your leadership in protecting and empowering young people across – and beyond – this beautiful city. I know this has been an especially demanding week, and that you and your staff have been working around the clock to help local families and communities recover from Sunday’s devastating storms. So I’d especially like to thank you for all you’ve done to bring us together today, and to ensure that this conference is a success.
Today’s strong participation is a testament to your extraordinary efforts, and the great work of many critical partners. I also want to recognize and thank the Executive Committee members, and co-chairs Marina Munoz Lyon and Gary Cunningham; as well as Karen Kelley-Ariwoola and the Minneapolis Foundation; the Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support; and, of course, the University of Minnesota.
The conversation we’ve gathered to begin – and the work that we must advance – could not be more urgent. And we all can be encouraged that so many state, local, and community leaders; as well as business professionals and health-care providers; law enforcement officials and children’s advocates; researchers, practitioners, and even a few young people – have taken the time to be here – and to discuss how we can take our youth violence prevention efforts to the next level. I’m especially glad that we’re joined by three key federal partners and good friends – your United States Attorney, Todd Jones; and your outstanding Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.
This conference provides a critical opportunity to highlight, to celebrate, and – hopefully – to replicate, the extraordinary progress that’s been made under Minneapolis’s “Blueprint for Action” strategy. It’s also our chance to reaffirm our commitment to the goals that we share –protecting young people in need and at risk; and strengthening our approach to addressing one of the greatest public safety – and public health – epidemics of our time: children’s exposure to violence.
Today, we know that the vast majority of our children – more than 60 percent – have been exposed to violence in one form or another – whether as direct victims or witnesses. These patterns of violence can take many forms – from pushing, hitting, and bullying to gun, knife, gang, domestic, or sexual violence. And they aren’t limited to any one region, community, or demographic group. Exposure can happen at home, in the streets, during school, or on the Internet, where children face serious and unprecedented threats.
Like many of you, I have seen the devastating impact that violence can have on young people, their families, and entire communities. And research shows that whether a child is an observer or a direct victim of violence – the experience is often associated with long-term physical, psychological, and emotional harm, as well as a higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse later in life. Young people exposed to violence fail in school more often than other kids – and are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety, and other post-traumatic disorders. They’re more likely to develop chronic diseases and to have trouble forming emotional attachments. And they’re more likely to commit acts of violence themselves.
But thanks to the unwavering commitment of many citizens and law enforcement professionals in cities like Minneapolis – and to many of the leaders in this room – we also know that there’s something we can do about it.
Today, I want to assure each of you that preventing and combating youth violence is – and will remain – a priority for the Obama Administration, for the Department of Justice, and for me personally. As Attorney General – and, above all, as the father of three teenage children – I am determined to turn the page on a problem that, for far too long, has ravaged too many communities, shattered too many young lives, and stolen too many promising futures.
I know that you share this commitment. And I’m excited about the progress that – here in Minneapolis – you’re helping to lead.
Five years ago, when Mayor Rybak joined with community leaders, law enforcement officials, and other key stakeholders to kick off the latest chapter in your youth violence prevention efforts, the need to confront this epidemic was crystal clear. Between 2003 and 2006, violence claimed the lives of roughly 80 young people in this city. Homicide was the leading cause of death for Minneapolis residents between the ages of 15 and 24.
In the face of this crisis, local leaders and community members across this city responded not with despair – but with resolve. And, since 2006 – when you joined partners from across the community to develop your innovative “Blueprint for Action” – the results of your efforts have been nothing short of remarkable.
The great strength of this “Blueprint” is that it abandons the notion that children’s exposure to violence can be addressed through prosecution and incarceration alone. There’s no doubt that vigorous enforcement actions will always play an essential role in the fight against youth violence – but by themselves, they do not provide the full, effective solution that we need – and that our children deserve.
Instead, the “Blueprint” recognizes that violence among and directed toward young people is not only a public safety issue – it’s also a public health issue. And it demands a public health response. From my colleagues and partners in this field – and from my wife, who is a physician – I’ve learned a great deal about the advantages of adopting a public health approach when addressing problems, including criminal justice problems. This means calling attention not only to a problem’s symptoms, but also its source. It means focusing on prevention; asking which populations are most vulnerable; and determining how behaviors spread.
In the hands of your interdisciplinary team, a public health approach has given rise to the ambitious goals Mayor Rybak has just spoken about: placing a trusted adult in the life of every child; intervening at the first sign of risk; and providing rehabilitation and educational services to young people who start down the wrong path so that they can overcome common cycles of violence and unlearn destructive behaviors. As the Mayor has just reported – in, and beyond, high-risk neighborhoods across Minneapolis, this strategy is taking hold.
Over the last five years, the number of young people arrested – or even suspected – in violent crimes has dropped by more than half. Assaults are down, and, although the homicide rate has fluctuated – and some recent figures underscore how fragile our progress can be – trends have been in the right direction since the “Blueprint” was implemented. In the same period, the rate of school crimes has plummeted – and the number of young people in STEP UP and other city jobs programs has increased.
This track record is impressive to say the least, and it proves the wisdom of a collaborative, comprehensive strategy – built on community engagement, and focused on connecting young people with the right resources. I am proud of everything you’ve accomplished so far – and I’m especially pleased to hear that you’re already sharing your most successful strategies with other communities.
Now, it’s time to build on this progress – and to expand and augment your work by extending its reach across the country.
Your “Blueprint” represents precisely the kind of thinking – applied to the City of Minneapolis in a unique, tailored way – that drives the Justice Department’s ongoing efforts to address youth violence in cities and towns from coast to coast. Through programs like our Defending Childhood Initiative – which is directing resources for the express purpose of reducing childhood exposure to violence – and the National Youth Violence Prevention Forum, which has brought stakeholders together to develop violence prevention and reduction plans – my colleagues and I are working every day to broaden our impact, to fight this epidemic in new and innovative ways, and to ensure that all our children’s interests are protected.
I am proud that the Justice Department has taken a central role in facilitating these efforts on a national scale. And on behalf of my colleagues across the Administration and your great senators, I want to pledge our ongoing support for this work.
But the simple truth is that, when it comes to protecting our children, and ensuring safety and opportunity for all of our citizens, government can’t do it alone. As the “Blueprint” has shown, we can make our operations more efficient and more effective by forging new relationships, and by engaging a variety of partners to bring new resources – and fresh perspectives – to bear. This will allow us to test multiple strategies, formulate better ways to measure progress, and enhance our ability to target valuable resources.
So, to be blunt – we need your expertise. We need your ideas. And we need your help.
We’re counting on the guidance of public servants like Senators Klobuchar and Franken, Mayor Rybak, and United States Attorney Jones to help apply the lessons that we’ve learned here in Minneapolis nationwide.
We’re counting on leaders and partners like you to advance, develop, and implement new violence prevention and intervention strategies; to launch after-school and summer job programs; and to build the support necessary to expand opportunities for achievement, contribution, and public service.
And, most of all, we’re counting on the enduring commitment of parents, practitioners, and police officers – of experts and passionate citizens alike, from all backgrounds and walks of life – to take a special interest in this work. To reach out to both adults and children; to provide teachers, civic leaders, and public health officials with up-to-date information about youth violence trends and indicators; and to train lawyers and law enforcement officers to respond more effectively when violence occurs.
By employing a coordinated, comprehensive approach – as exemplified by your “Blueprint for Action,” and similar efforts across the country – I have every confidence that, together, we will be able to strengthen our historic commitment to this work, and to shape a brighter future for the next generation.
Our children are counting on us. Our communities are counting on us. We cannot – and we will not – let them down.
So thank you, once again, for your leadership of these critical efforts, and for the opportunity to stand with you this morning as we look to the days and years ahead – for our children and for our great country. We must realize that the futures of our youngest citizens are inextricably bound to the future of our still-developing nation. Quite simply, we cannot be great as a nation unless and until we help, and more effectively care for, our children – all of our children.
This is our great test, and in many ways it’s the single most consequential challenge we face in shaping our future. The progress of our nation – and the measure of its people – will be determined by the support that we provide and the doors that we open for the youngest among us. This is much more than our professional obligation – it is our moral calling and historic duty.
I look forward to all that we will accomplish together.