Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good morning, and thank you, [Senator] Luther [Strange], for the kind introduction. The people of Alabama are well represented in the Senate.
Let me begin by thanking the National Association of Attorneys General for inviting me here to speak today. You can be sure that I did not expect to be in this position. Two decades ago I had the privilege of serving as the Attorney General of Alabama, and I was a member of this group. But I must confess to you that I wasn’t a consistent dues-paying member. So, I brought my checkbook with me today, just in case you still want me to pay up.
Today I want to discuss something that I know is on your minds, and that greatly concerns me as well – the recent, disturbing rise in violent crime in our nation. I want to talk about exactly what we’re seeing; what the causes might be; and what we can do to confront this challenge together.
First, let’s put things in context. Overall, crime rates in the United States remain near historic lows. Murder rates are half of what they were in 1980. The rate of violent crime has fallen by almost half from its peak in the early 1990s. Many neighborhoods that were once in the grip of gangs and drugs and violence are now vibrant places, where kids can play in the park and parents can enjoy a walk after sunset without fear. There is no doubt that in the past four decades – under leadership from both political parties, and thanks above all to the work of prosecutors and good police using science and professional training – we have won great victories against crime in America. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are alive today as a result.
But in the last two years, we’ve seen clear warning signs – like the first gusts of wind before a summer storm – that this progress is now at risk.
The latest FBI official data tell us that from 2014 to 2015, the violent crime rate in the U.S. increased by more than 3 percent – the largest one-year increase since 1991. The murder rate increased 11 percent – the largest increase since 1968. The rape rate increased by over 4 percent, and the aggravated assault rate rose by nearly 4 percent.
If this was a one-year spike, we might not worry too much. But the preliminary data for the first half of 2016 confirmed these trends. The number of violent crimes in the first half of last year was more than 5 percent higher than the same period in 2015. The number of murders was also up 5 percent over the same period the year before, and aggravated assaults rose as well.
Just last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that since 2014, the murder rate in 27 of our country’s 35 largest cities has gone up. Homicide rates in Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee and Memphis have returned to levels not seen in two decades. Last year, Chicago had more than 4,000 shooting victims and 762 murders, and Baltimore’s murder rate was its second-highest ever.
These numbers should trouble all of us. My worry is that this is not a “blip” or an anomaly, but the start of a dangerous new trend that could reverse the hard-won gains of the past four decades – gains that made America a safer and more prosperous place.
While we can hope for the best, those of us charged with protecting public safety can’t afford to be complacent or take for granted the achievements of recent years, because when crime rates move in the wrong direction, they can move quickly.
We know this, because those of us above a certain age have lived it. In the early 1960s, crime began to rise in our country; by 1973, crime rates in almost every category – violent crime, murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary and car thefts – had doubled over where they were just a decade before. And as the 1970s went on, levels of crime and violence that we once deemed unacceptably high became the “new normal” in America.
As someone who lived through that dark time in our history, and dealt with its consequences every day as a prosecutor, I can assure you: We do not want to go back to those days. We cannot risk giving up all we have achieved in our fight against crime.
I’ve thrown a lot of numbers at you to illustrate my point. But we must remember that these data represent real neighborhoods and real people whose safety and lives are at stake. Each victim of this recent spike in violent crime is someone’s parent, or child, or friend. And every loss of a young life to guns or drugs is a tragedy we must work to prevent.
While this spike in violent crime is not happening in every neighborhood or city, the trends should concern all of us. It is a basic civil right to be safe in your home and your neighborhood. We are diminished as a nation when any of our citizens fears for their life when they leave their home; or when terrified parents put their children to sleep in bathtubs to keep them safe from stray bullets; or when entire neighborhoods are at the mercy of drugs dealers, gangs and other violent criminals.
So we need to act decisively at all levels – federal, state and local – to reverse this rise in violent crime and keep our citizens safe. This will be a top priority of the Department of Justice during my time as Attorney General.
We know the first step in fixing something is recognizing you have a problem. For anyone who still doubts that today’s rise in violent crime is real and significant, I’ve done my best here to make that case. And I’m not alone, because police chiefs and sheriffs and mayors across our country are saying the same thing.
Once we recognize the problem, we need to examine the causes and take action. It’s still early, but people with long experience in law enforcement and crime research are beginning to draw some conclusions.
We know that our nation is in the throes of a heroin epidemic, with overdose deaths more than tripling between 2010 and 2014. Meanwhile, illegal drugs flood across our southern border and into cities and towns across our country, bringing violence, addiction and misery. In particular, we’ve seen an increase in the trafficking of new, low-cost heroin by Mexican drug cartels working with local street gangs. As the market for this heroin expands, gangs fight for territory and new customers and neighborhoods are caught in the crossfire.
In recent years, we’ve also seen a significant shift in the priority given to prosecuting gun and drug offenders at the federal level. While numbers don’t tell the whole story, I still find the following statistics troubling: at the end of 2015 there were more than 7 percent fewer federal gun prosecutions than five years before. In that same five-year period, federal drug prosecutions declined by 18 percent.
Under my leadership at the Department of Justice, this trend will end. Our agents and prosecutors will prioritize cases against the most violent offenders, and remove them from our streets so they can no longer do us harm.
We’ve also heard from law enforcement leaders, including the FBI Director and many police chiefs, that something is changing in policing. They tell us that in this age of viral videos and targeted killings of police, many of our men and women in law enforcement are becoming more cautious. They’re more reluctant to get out of their squad cars and do the hard but necessary work of up-close policing that builds trust and prevents violent crime.
This is a terrible place to be, because we know that tough and effective law enforcement can make a real difference. It can reduce crime and save lives. We’ve seen it happen in our country over the past four decades – and many of you in this room have been part of this noble work.
What do I mean by good, effective law enforcement? It means effective prevention programs. It means selfless, dedicated police officers who know the people they serve and protect. It means a humane prison system that keeps dangerous criminals off the streets. It means prosecutors who work tirelessly, within the bounds of the law, to put offenders behind bars. It means judges who serve under the law, who interpret it faithfully as it is written, and who apply it to all equally, with vigor and integrity. All of these elements of our justice system must work together.
The immense social costs of crime are indisputable. Yes, incarceration is painful for the families of inmates, and every conviction represents a failure on multiple levels of society. But the costs of rising crime are even more severe. Drug crimes and violent felonies change the lives of victims forever. Neighborhoods hit by rising crime suffer deep economic harm. And if more young men choose to commit crimes because jail time is less daunting than before, that means they are forgoing more hopeful courses for their lives and their communities. In the midst of a terrible heroin epidemic and a rise in violent crime, we should not roll back the tools law enforcement has to go after federal drug trafficking and firearms felons, or release thousands more.
The federal government has a key role to play in addressing this crisis. I pledge that under my leadership at the Department of Justice, we will systematically prosecute criminals who use guns in committing crimes. We will work to take down drug trafficking cartels and dismantle gangs. And we will enforce our immigration laws and prosecute those who repeatedly violate our borders.
I also pledge to listen to the stories and concerns of those who are most affected by this rise in violent crime. Over the coming months I plan to travel around the country, from border towns to big cities, to talk with and learn from our law enforcement partners, crime victims, community leaders and others.
Earlier this month, the President also gave us clear direction. He signed three executive orders aimed at reducing crime and restoring public safety, protecting our law enforcement personnel, and dismantling the transnational cartels that are bringing drugs and violence into our neighborhoods.
To carry out the first of those orders, today I’m announcing the formation of a Department of Justice Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.
The Deputy Attorney General will chair the task force, which will include crime reduction experts throughout the Department of Justice, including the heads of the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. Marshals Service. The task force will evaluate everything we are doing. It will look at deficiencies in our current laws that have made them less effective in reducing crime, and propose new legislation. It will make sure we’re collecting good crime data, and think of ways to improve that data so we can all better understand crime trends. We will insist that every agent and prosecutor is deployed effectively, fully supported and highly productive. Finally, the task force will consult with our partners in law enforcement at all levels, as well as law enforcement organizations, victims’ groups and community groups.
But the federal government cannot meet this challenge alone. States and cities and towns have always played the lead role in criminal law enforcement in our country – and that must continue, for two reasons.
First, it’s the most effective way for us to work. Many of the law enforcement techniques that helped make our neighborhoods safer in recent decades – such as community-based policing – were developed and refined at the local level. So it’s a good bet that the best new ideas for meeting this current crisis will also come from innovators in state and local law enforcement.
The second reason is sheer numbers. About 85 percent of all law enforcement officers in our nation are not federal, but state and local. Today they are better educated, trained and equipped than ever before. These are the men and women on the front lines – the ones doing most of the tough and often dangerous work that keeps our neighborhoods safe.
Unfortunately, in recent years law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors. Our officers, deputies and troopers believe the political leadership of this country abandoned them. Their morale has suffered. And last year, amid this intense public scrutiny and criticism, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty increased 10 percent over the year before.
To confront the challenge of rising crime, we must rely heavily on local law enforcement to lead the way – and they must know they have our steadfast support.
For the federal government, that means this: rather than dictating to local police how to do their jobs – or spending scarce federal resources to sue them in court – we should use our money, research and expertise to help them figure out what is happening and determine the best ways to fight crime. We should strengthen partnerships between federal and state and local officers. And we should encourage proactive policing that ensures our police and citizens are communicating and working well together.
The new challenge of violent crime in our nation is real – and the task that lies before us is clear. As President Reagan used to say, there are no easy answers, but there are simple ones; we only need the courage to do what is right. We need to resist the temptation to ignore or downplay this crisis and instead tackle it head-on, to ensure justice and safety for all Americans. We need to enforce our laws and put bad men behind bars. And we need to support the brave men and women of law enforcement as they work day and night to protect us.
Let us act to meet this challenge, so that our children and grandchildren will not look back and say that our generation let slip from our grasp all we had done to make our country a safer and better place.
I welcome your ideas and your advice, and I look forward to working with all of you in this cause. Thank you for having me here today.