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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaksat the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Judge [Glen] Whitley, for your kind words – and for your tireless efforts to improve government efficiency, to promote community safety and public health solutions, and to strengthen the important work of this association.

It is a pleasure to be with you – and with so many distinguished leaders and dedicated partners. And it’s a privilege to join Admiral Mullen, and former Congressman Scarborough, in welcoming you to Washington.

Without question, we meet at a difficult – and defining – moment. Although you represent the diversity of our nation’s counties and communities, each of you faces similar challenges: revenue shortfalls and budget cuts, understaffed justice systems and overcrowded jails and prisons, ongoing public safety difficulties and unprecedented national security threats. No matter where you serve, each of you has seen – and experienced – the same struggles.

Despite this – and despite the many obstacles before us – I believe that this is a time of extraordinary opportunity – the opportunity to be more creative and innovative; to transform systems in need of reform; to harness 21st-century technologies; to incorporate research and science into our decision-making processes; to break down long-standing barriers to communication and cost-sharing; to forge and strengthen partnerships across, and beyond, government; and, even as we’re called on to do more with less, to do better for the most vulnerable citizens we serve.

That’s what this conference is all about. And that’s what the National Association of Counties stands for.

It is also what the Department of Justice stands for – and has worked toward – over the past two years. In addition to advancing our most critical priority – protecting the safety of our people and the security of our nation – I am proud of the progress that we have made in restoring integrity and transparency at every level of our work; in safeguarding civil rights; in protecting our environment; in bringing our fight against financial and health care fraud – as well as violent crime – to new levels; and in maintaining our commitment to support the work of our state and local partners.

This afternoon, I’d like to discuss  two specific Justice Department priorities that, I know, are top concerns for many of you: how we can improve the effectiveness of our juvenile justice system, and how we’re going to ensure that every American can access the legal services they need and deserve.

I share these concerns, as does Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson – who leads our Office of Justice Programs and who I’m glad is here with us today. Many of you have worked closely with Laurie over the years. So, it should come as no surprise that she consistently reminds me of one of the most important lessons I learned as a federal prosecutor, as a judge, as a United States Attorney, as Deputy Attorney General, as Attorney General – and, above all, as a father of three children: that the work of protecting, assisting, and empowering our young people could not be more urgent.

Like Laurie, and like many of you, throughout my career, I have seen the long-term consequences of a system that – all too often – does not work. Now, this is not my opinion. This is a fact. The evidence on our nation’s juvenile justice system is in – and it demonstrates that change is needed. The current system does not spend resources as wisely as it should. And it does not improve as many lives as it could.

It’s time for us to ask some important questions. Why is it that, although African-American youth make up 16 percent of the overall youth population, they make up more than half of the juvenile population arrested for committing a violent crime? Why is it that abused and neglected children are 11 times more likely than their non-abused and non-neglected peers to be arrested for criminal behavior? And why is that so many of those who enter our juvenile justice system either can’t afford – or do not know to ask for – access to legal guidance? Some even plead guilty to criminal offenses without the advice of a lawyer.

What we do know is that, even though many of those who are incarcerated enter the juvenile justice system for non-violent offences, they often emerge violent – or, at the very least – traumatized. A scientific review of nine “Scared Straight” programs around the country showed that children ordered into these programs are nearly 30 percent more likely – yes, more likely – to offend than youths who are not. In another study, 12 percent of the adjudicated youth in state-operated and large locally or privately operated juvenile facilities reported experiencing at least one incident of sexual victimization while incarcerated. And a recent Utah Youth Suicide Study reported that young victims of suicide had nearly a seven in ten chance of an association with the juvenile justice system, calling us to question whether the current system is improving lives – or devastating them.

Meanwhile, let’s consider what happens after our young people move out of the system. Each year, 100,000 young people exit formal custody. And some of them have nowhere to go. Too many of these young people return to unstable homes – or end up in shelters, on the streets, or in other potentially dangerous, or violent, situations. And many are not welcomed back to their community school and struggle to find educational opportunities. Within a year of reentry, one study found that only 30 percent of previously incarcerated youth are involved in either school or work. The unfortunate fact is that many end up in our jails and prisons.

And all of this is – as they say – just the tip of the iceberg. But we must keep in mind that the problem before us cannot be measured solely by these troubling statistics. Behind these numbers are real people, with real problems, and – unless they find the help and support they need – with extraordinary potential that may never be unlocked or fulfilled.

When I think about the enormity of the challenges we face – and the gravity of our responsibilities to the young people we serve and who, one day, will determine the strength and success of this country – I am reminded of the words that my most famous predecessor – and my personal hero – Attorney General Robert Kennedy spoke nearly half a century ago. “Justice, dignity, equality,” he said. “These are words which are often used loosely, with little appreciation of their meaning – [but] I think that their meaning can be distilled into one goal: that every child in this country live as we would want our own children to live.”

Robert Kennedy believed that the link between justice and children could never be broken without compromising our founding ideals – and our most sacred principles. He was right.

This is a moral issue. How we treat our children answers the question of who we are as a nation. And in these lean times, it’s also important to recognize that better serving our young people makes good economic sense by keeping them out of over-stressed and under-funded corrections facilities and saving precious law enforcement resources.

Put simply, it’s time to broaden our approach to juvenile justice – and to ensure that sound research and respected analysis are a part of our decision-making process. We know that we must transition from a prosecution-and-punishment model to a prevention-and-intervention paradigm. We also must adopt a comprehensive plan of action – one that engages law-enforcement partners, medical professionals, social services providers, lawyers, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, and community leaders.

Not only will updating our approach – and building on current efforts to be smart, not just tough, on crime – help generate the positive outcomes we seek for our young people, these reforms also will save money.

Now, I can’t pretend that achieving the results we hope to see – and that our young people deserve – will be quick or easy work. It won’t be. We will not solve all of these issues in the next six years. But let me assure you today: the Justice Department – and, specifically, the Office of Justice Programs and its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention – is committed to keeping up our efforts to address these issues boldly, creatively, and collaboratively; to get us to the place where we must be.

As you know, last year, we built on the success of our Safe Start Program and launched a landmark Defending Childhood Initiative – the federal government’s most comprehensive effort ever to address and overcome the crisis of childhood exposure to violence. And I’m pleased that, in his recent budget proposal, President Obama has signaled his support for continuing our efforts by pledging $25 million to this initiative.

And there are promising programs in jurisdictions across the country, such as the Civil Citations program in Miami-Dade County. Instead of arresting kids who commit minor misdemeanors and exposing them to the juvenile justice system, law enforcement agencies refer them to targeted interventions aimed at reducing delinquent behavior and providing positive social outlets. Recidivism has been reduced to 3 percent for youth who participate in this program, and juvenile arrests have dropped by 30 percent.

Not only have we learned which aspects of our juvenile justice system must be protected and strengthened, we also know what areas must be urgently addressed. And we’ve seen that far too many juveniles – as well as adults – who encounter our criminal justice system struggle to access legal services.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Survey of Youth in Residential Placement shows that only one half of young people in detention facilities have a lawyer. In far too many jurisdictions, youth are encouraged – whether explicitly or implicitly – to waive their right to counsel. And even when they do not, court-appointed lawyers often enter the picture too late.

As a 2009 report by the National Juvenile Defender Center describes it, “Many juvenile courts still operate in a… mode in which the defense attorney is irrelevant, real lawyering cannot occur, and the fair administration of justice is impeded.”

For low-income adults, the situation isn’t any better. Across the country, too many public defender officers are underfunded and understaffed. And yet the fundamental integrity of our criminal justice system – and our country’s faith in it – depends on the effective representation of both sides.

In what must now become a nationwide effort to bring systemic, not incremental, reform to our justice system, I am proud to count each of you as partners. So many of you – both as individuals and as an association – have called attention to our country’s indigent-defense crisis. You’ve worked to ensure that the unique needs of rural communities are part of the national conversation. And you have been champions of bringing innovative and creative solutions to this problem.

In this work, I’m grateful for your contributions. And I want you to know that the Department’s new Access to Justice Initiative will continue to serve as your partner. Last year, we established this office in an effort to ensure that quality legal representation is available, affordable, and accessible to all Americans. The Access to Justice team has hit the ground running with an ambitious agenda – and they stand ready to work with you until you no longer face that impossible choice between funding critical health and human services or upholding core Constitutional rights.

So does our Office of Justice Programs. On indigent defense, as well as juvenile justice reform, Laurie and her team will continue working to implement much-needed solutions – from the Indigent Defense Hiring Project and work with the National Juvenile Defender Center to a National Fellowship Program for law school graduates to become public defenders for three years.

But I believe that the best – and most targeted – solutions won’t be imposed from on high. And they won’t be born of a single county-level effort. They will be shared solutions, created together – after rigorous scientific evaluation and innovative resource leveraging. They will be collectively implemented. They will address – not just consequences of crime, but also the underlying causes. And they will – ultimately – replace broken social patterns with healthy ones, and dysfunctional systems and practices with effective, and proven, solutions.

As we move forward toward this end, I look forward to working with each of you. Although we have different responsibilities, and bring a variety of perspectives to our public service work – we are all Americans. We are all stewards of our democracy. We are all examples, and advocates, for our young people. And we are all responsible for ensuring that – even in these challenging times – those three American values that Attorney General Kennedy saw as paramount half a century ago are preserved, and passed on to future generations: justice, dignity, and equality.

Thank you.

Access to Justice
Updated April 28, 2016