Justice News

Attorney General Eric Holder at the University of Pennsylvania Department of Criminology Commencement Ceremony
Philadelphia, PA
United States
Saturday, May 16, 2009

It is my great privilege to join you on this hopeful and consequential day in your lives. Thank you, Chairman Raine, Larry Sherman, Bill Laufer, and John MacDonald for the work you do in this outstanding program.

Thank you, Jerry Lee, for your tremendous generosity to the students and faculty, and, indeed, for all Americans who benefit from the work that takes place here.

Finally, it is good to be here with my dear friend and colleague, Laurie Robinson, who directed the criminology department masters program until we took her away in January. As you all probably know, the President formally announced last week his nomination of Laurie for the position of Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, a job she performed with great distinction during the Clinton Administration. Now I know that you all hoped that Laurie would return to your ranks after her temporary assignment in Washington, but the President of the United States can be awfully persuasive. So, although I would like to apologize for stealing her from you, my apology would never pass a polygraph exam. We need her at the Department of Justice and we hope to keep her for a long time.

For nearly a decade, the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Criminology has trained some of our nation’s finest minds in the methods of researching, assessing, and most importantly, preventing crime. You, the graduates of this outstanding program, are now poised to write your own chapter in this critical and constantly changing vocation. As the Attorney General, I find myself with a strong rooting interest in your success. I know that you will make your families, your university, and your country proud.

A special word about those families. They have supported you emotionally, intellectually, and in many cases, financially, through the rigors of your studies. On this day they sit behind you, but throughout your training, they have stood beside you – never letting you falter when times were tough. We cannot thank them enough.

I understand the temptation to view this day as an ending – perhaps even the last chapter of your academic careers. But I urge you to see this day as something different. Though some of you may never call yourselves a student again, your adventure in your unique and chosen field is about to start. So graduates, embrace this day not as an ending but a beginning.

I am glad to hear that many of you have chosen to begin your new adventure at the Department of Justice. Some of you have accepted positions as intelligence analysts in the FBI, and one among you will be joining the U.S. Marshals Service.  I want you to know that we in the Department of Justice have been looking forward to your graduation almost as much as you have. The American people will be fortunate to benefit from your knowledge and talent.

And you will be starting your service at a time when your government is placing a new and long overdue value on the scientific skills you have developed in this program.

Long before he took the Oath of Office, Barack Obama promised to be a president who would restore science to its rightful place in our society. That commitment was important enough to find a place in his inaugural address. And speaking recently at the National Academy of Sciences, the President said that “science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before.” The President has promised to turn the tide on the unacceptable decline in science funding we have seen in past years and to promote scientific research through tax credits and other incentives.

Within the Department of Justice, we are making great strides in the field of criminology. For example, research has shown us the effectiveness of DNA evidence in solving burglaries and other property crimes. A field study by the National Institutes of Justice found that arrests and prosecutions for these crimes doubled when DNA evidence was used, and that most of the offenders who were identified had significant criminal histories. This research has enormous potential to improve our ability to solve crimes – both property crimes and violent crimes.

Research from NIJ also recently helped us to create a new mental health screening assessment that may permit corrections officials to identify mentally ill offenders within minutes and refer them to trained professionals. This will help alleviate the tremendous burden on our Nation’s jails and prisons, which have become de facto mental health providers because of the tremendous number of inmates with mental illness.

And, research has helped improve our understanding in other areas of crime and justice, as well – from crime mapping to sex trafficking to drug markets -- and every day, we are getting better.

Those of you who join us at the Justice Department and all of you graduating today will benefit from the value that this outstanding program places on research. But as you have all doubtlessly come to learn in your time here, scientific research is much more than a mere collection of facts to be gathered, noted and filed; it is a driver of progress, not just providing answers to existing questions, but leading you to think of new questions, and then seek answers for them as well.

Indeed, Louis Pasteur said that “science and the application of science [are] bound together as the fruit to the tree which bears it.” For you – for us -- the understanding of the causes and correlates of crime are of little use if we fail to delve further, to understand how we can use this information to prevent future crimes and improve our society.

As graduates of this remarkable program, you are uniquely positioned to contribute to this shared endeavor. The University of Pennsylvania stands alone in its exceptional focus on applying theory to criminal justice practice. Nowhere else in America are skills in pattern analysis, crime mapping, and other strategic methods of crime response offered within the framework of social science.

This blending of theory with the day-to-day of crime prevention and crime fighting is desperately needed. The world of academia has great value, but what we need today are men and women who can guide research and discovery into the world of policy and practice.

You now have a vast array of tools to approach this challenge. Yet the tool that will be most important to your success can’t be found in any textbook or lecture hall. It is found inside each of you. It is your moral compass.

I am sometimes asked to describe how I make the most difficult decisions as Attorney General. Whether it be national security policy or criminal charging decisions or environmental enforcement priorities or the decision to seek the death penalty, every day brings a new set of tough choices.

There is no guidebook for making these decisions, and few of them are simple or without cost. So I review as much evidence as I possibly can. I consider the facts. I consult with the experts that I am fortunate enough to have at the Department of Justice. And I try to predict the near- and long-term consequences of every possible option.

But when it comes time to sign my name on an order, I call upon my basic sense of right and wrong – grounded always in what is required by both the letter and the spirit of our Constitution and laws. I urge all of you, as you embark on your careers, to do the same.

The path blazed by Professor Thorsten Sellin provides a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Professor Sellin didn’t found this program or dedicate his life to criminology so that he could fill books with facts, figures, or answers to unasked questions. He pursued this calling so that he could apply his immense skills and intellect to change the world for the better.

He cared for causes and put the weight of science behind them, weaving together the previously disparate fields of science and social policy as tightly as two strands of DNA.

Whatever path you choose within the field of criminal justice, you will find yourselves facing decisions every day that call for you to examine – and to rely upon -- your own moral framework, just as Professor Sellin did. Embrace these moments.

But understand that they call for you to bear a special burden. You will not be able to fall back on old methods and pretend they are good enough. You must to say to others, “We need more. We need to dig deeper. We need evidence.”

So, my charge to all of you today is to think hard about those decisions that you will confront – because you will confront them, sooner or later. Don’t accept the status quo. Apply the rigors of science and reason that you have been taught here. Expand our scientific horizons. And seek the counsel of wiser heads, as I have done in every step of my career. You don’t have to go it alone.

The degree you have earned is a wonderful gift. Over time, your wisdom and knowledge will be calibrated by experience, but your moral compass must always point towards justice. Depend upon all of your skills; trust them; let them guide you – but never deviate from what you know is the right thing to do. I am confident that our justice system and our nation will be richer for your contributions.

Good luck and godspeed.

Updated August 20, 2015