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Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch Delivers Keynote Address at 19th Annual David Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum


New York City, NY
United States

Remarks as delivered

Thank you, Mayor [David] Dinkins, for that kind introduction – and for your lifetime of dedicated service to the people of New York.  I first heard him describe this city as “a gorgeous mosaic,” as he just did on his inauguration day several years ago.  It was a rather cold day when I was sitting outside watching history change and certainly he’s changed the city for the better and I thank him for that.  But let me also thank you all for having me here today. Let me thank the President of this great university, President [Lee] Bollinger.  Thank you for this invitation, but also for your leadership here at one of our flagship institutions of higher learning, of research, and of commitment to public service.  Let me thank Dean Janow for her leadership of the School of International and Public Affairs.  Obviously public service is near and dear to my heart and so to see the discipline of public affairs and public service brought together by such a great institution drawing in so many outstanding scholars is something I think frankly is one of the greatest gifts you can give to our nation so I thank you for that as well.  And let me also thank the distinguished panelists who are going to follow me after to continue the discussion and hopefully to engage with you in a way that illuminates one of the most challenging issues of our day.

This forum I guess the 19th anniversary, is such a fitting tribute to Mayor Dinkins’s legacy of service, and it is a testament to Columbia’s commitment to fostering the vibrant dialogue that is so essential to the health of our democracy.  You all, together, have advanced the conversation around some of the most difficult and challenging issues of the day and those issues remain and it seems as if they grow ever year, but your resolve to meet them and your dedication to discuss, dissect and, in fact, advance them has never wavered.  Pollution.  Immigration.  The deficits that we face. The labor rights that is still a challenge in this city and this nation. And the benefit of this of course is that it gives the leaders of tomorrow the chance to hear from and to challenge those of us who are at the helm of institutions today.  And it also challenged us who sit in those chairs of power for however long we have them to do our utmost to fulfill the promise of this nation since its founding.  Liberty.  Equality. And justice.  Not just for some.  But for all.  Not just for some.  But for all.

Now, public service has long been one of the benefits of my life.  And I’m tremendously proud to serve in the Obama Administration.  But on the day that President Obama took office, this nation faced a number of challenges and they’ve been catalogued and discussed before.  But the challenge that I have just mentioned: how do we ensure liberty, equality and justice not just for some, but for all?  Those ideals were being severely tested by our own our criminal justice system.  Now, our criminal justice system at the time I think it’s fair to say was in a state of crisis.  Although the United States represents five percent of the world’s population, we were incarcerating almost a quarter of those prisoners if you count them around the world.  And while the population of the United States had grown by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population had expanded almost 800 percent – 800 percent – over the same time period.  Thousands and thousands of people taken away from families, from communities, from the chance to contribute to the economy, to their lives and to this great nation. We were spending more than $260 billion – yes, with a “b” – on corrections, incarceration, and law enforcement every year.  And police and prosecutors were forced to devote time to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses, leaving them less time and fewer resources to go after the most serious crimes.  And I think as we all know, these practices filled our prisons, but they also drained our assets and imposed human costs that would be difficult to measure, but the effects of which we see around us today, particularly in their impact on communities of color.  And over time, the true cost – the true damage that these practices did – was that they contributed to an environment in which many struggling communities simply lost faith in our system of justice.  They lost faith in our system of justice.  And this loss of faith, this condition of separation that it afflicts for so many across this great nation, is simply not acceptable.  Not in this administration.  Not in this time. Not in America.  It’s not.

It is a devastating consequence.  Now I’m tremendously proud to lead the Department of Justice.  As I have said before, it’s the only Cabinet agency named after an ideal for which we still strive and it is vital that every American be able to share in that ideal.  And the challenge of our generation, and really the challenge of every generation, is how do you make that ideal a reality for people who depend on it, for people who still despite the separation they feel in government, for people who despite the loss of faith they have in the system, turn to us for help, turn to us for assistance, turn to us for answers?  Well, I’m proud to say that since the earliest days of the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice has been focused on exactly that.  We’ve been looking for ways to reform the criminal justice system to make it more efficient, more effective, and above all more fair.  Through the Smart on Crime initiative, launched by my predecessor and your friend, former Attorney General Eric Holder and also a proud alum of this institution, we have fundamentally reoriented the way we approach criminal justice issues.  We have diminished the use of harsh mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenses, redirecting our focus towards violent criminals and large-scale traffickers.  We have identified diversion programs – such as drug treatment and community service initiatives – that can serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.  And we have also invested in rehabilitation and reentry programs that can reduce the likelihood of recidivism. 

Now I will tell you and I’m sure you all know that this approach initially faced skepticism.  While we got great acclaim and applause from people who had studied this issue over the years and in fact had been talking about the collateral consequences of choices we made out of a great desire to create public safety, but those collateral consequences were draining us. We did of course receive skepticism.  And that skepticism came from some people who were in our own law enforcement community and family and that’s part of the debate also.  Was Smart on Crime going to equate to be Soft on Crime in some way?  Were we going to stop holding people accountable in some way and stop making them face responsibility?  Part of the promise.  Part of the experience that we have learned as we look at this issue is that we always have to be able to reexamine the precepts and the policies that we use to keep our communities safe. When we look back on the beginnings of these policies…and I was a young prosecutor in the 1990s doing narcotics cases and I remember the level of violence and the level of fear and danger that accompanied that practice.  But when we look at attempts to keep people safe and look again at the collateral consequences and what we have brought with that, we are compelled to make these changes.  And the lesson there for me and certainly for all of us who seek to craft policy that keep us safe and free, is that we always have to be willingly to reexamine basic concepts and presets to which we make our decisions.  And when you do that, without fear, without a concern for changing something that has been there for some time.  You will be able to build on the practices of the past, and in fact, improve on them.  And so we answer those questions. People said how to we get people to plead guilty without pressure of mandatory minimums.  Who will cooperate?  Because we know, in our increasing violent world, we depend upon witnesses and those individuals to come to us for information.  Not necessarily invalid concerns, but one of the other changes that we have seen and we have to embrace, in institutions and forums like this, is that we advance our thinking of criminal justice reform.  We have also advance in the use of data.  So while the policies that we have a feel for, that we think will work or should work, we now are making sure we have the ability to catalog that they do work.  And I think this institution, and this school and the people in this room for being part of that change, which I think in fact, one of the sentimental changes in criminal justice policy that we will see over the years.  The ability to look at data driven programs that actually effect change. Let’s look at those results.

Just last month, we released federal prosecution data from fiscal year 2015, two years after the implementation of Smart on Crime, and showed our prosecutors are in fact using the digression that they were granted, and demanding fewer mandatory minimums, but they are focusing on more serious drug offenders.  Our rate of returning plea agreements have remained the same.  Our rates of obtaining cooperation from those individuals caught up, in the clutches of the law, who need to work with us, have remained the same.  So the fears and concerns have not been borne out by the data and that change is one we will continue to rely on.  That same data also tells us that our federal prison population has decreased, and what we still have significant overcrowding, in the federal system, we are well on our way to working toward an environment, that not only hold people accountable, but reduces overcrowding. Therefore, increases safety for inmates and correctional officers alike. This decline, in the numbers in federal custody, confirmed the data from the previous year and showing a stark reversal.  For the first time, in that two-year period, that we have seen a reduction in federal prison population in 34 years.  For almost two fully years, it has gone up.  We have been able to bring it down without impacting public safety, without impacting the ability and the effectiveness of our prosecutors and working to hold the most serious offenders accountable.  The harm that they do bring to our communities.    I am quite proud of what we have accomplished under this program, but we cannot stop there.  And we are not going to stop there.  We are committed to driving our progress even further.

In an area, over the year, that has generated so much concern, so much controversy and frankly so much despair.  What we see from this is that change can come.  Change can come and we can make it so.

Now of course, in this, we were not the only system facing these challenges and struggling with ways to deal with this.  We built on the work that many state and local colleagues in New York, in Texas and in others.  Many of you in this room remember the days and the debates over the effectiveness, or lack of thereof.  New York State’s Rockefeller’s drug laws. Another system conceived of a desire to deal with public safety crisis, but had the impact over incarcerating nonviolent, low-level drug offenders to a degree that even writers can conceived of.  And I was tremendously proud to be still in New York, sum ten years when those laws were changed and changed for the better.

Now over the last year, and you are right to be proud of that and as part of the work that we are building on at the Department of Justice.  Now over the years, over the past year and frankly over the term of this Administration, we have also continued working to prevent contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.  But we also have to work to ensure that when our fellow Americans leave our institutions of incarcerations, and return home to their families and communities that they have access to the support they need.  And one of the ways of which we have done is we had to realize is that what we are looking at the overall criminal justice system, how do we make it more effective, more efficient, more fair.  One of the first data points that we have to realize and one of the first facts we have to simulate is we look at individuals, who are incarcerated, who have a brush with the criminal justice system that is never the first problem that they have.  No one starts at that point.  I am very much aware that the criminal justice system is the end point on a pathways filled with lack of opportunity, with educational crisis, with family issues, with concerns about employment and jobs and safety, and safe not just with air but as we’ve seen safe drinking water, that place our children and our citizens, our friends and neighbors on a collision course with a system that has not always looked at them in that whole manner.  And we have to look at that also.  Because the issues involved in making our system more effective, more efficient and more fair, come from so many other factors.  We’re also forging partnerships across the federal government – with agencies like the Department of Education – who is doing so much work with us in helping our prison system bring educational opportunities inside of its doors.  Because while we have the responsibility for the support of the bodies of those individuals, we also have responsibility for their minds.  We’re forging partnerships with the Department of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development to tackle the problems that obstruct opportunity and lead to crime in the first place; neighborhood blight; substandard schools; and the problems that cuts across so many areas as we look at criminal justice reform – inadequate mental health resources.  This issue is one that I am seeing in every facet of the criminal justice system to which we are turning our attention today.  From not just how people interact with law enforcement but the rate of incarceration the individuals in the prison system who have or need mental health services and the need for those services to allow them to come back in to their communities and become vibrant and supportive members.

Now we are also working to help expand the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable into a full White House initiative.  This Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, again just now a full White House initiative, that we intend to live on. We intend for this to live on long after other people are in our chairs, brings together 21 federal agencies dedicated to improving access to justice.  Now, without access to justice all we have is that final stop with criminal justice. Because access to justice is more than just getting a lawyer at that last stop, it means finding good housing, it means securing employment.  Looking at the legal barriers to full entry in life for all of our citizens and making sure that those barriers are addressed and that people have ways to deal with them.  The legal barriers to housing, the legal barriers to securing employment or even securing health care benefits.  When you provide civil people access, even small amounts in those areas, we see vast amounts of improvement in people’s ability to connect with the health care system to secure and maintain safe housing for themselves and their families, as well as to maintain safe housing for themselves and their families, as well as to deal with employment issues.

But we have to do more – we have to do more.  Looking at reentry and how we bring our mothers, our fathers, our sisters and our brothers home, we are investing in promising federal, state, local and importantly tribal reentry efforts.  Because of course, how we deal with the first Americans is a reflection of how we deal with all Americans.  This investment includes a $68 million investment in Second Chance Act grants over the last fiscal year. 

We’re also working with a range of federal agencies through the Federal Interagency Reentry Council – which I am tremendously proud to chair.  It brings together a number of the cabinet agencies that I’ve just mentioned.  And through that – through hard working people committed to this effort – we identify the barriers to successfully coming home for our formerly incarcerated family members.  Literally as simple as having an identification card.  As simple as having transportation – a bus pass or a metro pass. 

And of course, we’re working with the Department of Education to expand Pell Grant eligibility within our incarceration systems, both federal and state.  This is another venture that is supported by the data in unmistakable ways.  For years we have known that when we provide educational opportunities within our prisons, the higher a degree of education an inmate can achieve, the lower the chances of them reoffending and the greater the chances of them returning to society and being able to be a part of that society.  We tell our children all the time, “education is the key.”  We tell all of our young people, “progress through the educational system.”  This institution was founded on the thought, the view and the reality that the beauty of thought, discussion and dialogue is what makes this country great.  And so it stands to reason that for those who need to return to society, we have to also provide a way for them to get the full benefits of education so they can be competitive, so they can secure employment, so they can be an inspiration to their children.  

I’ve been privileged enough to be in institutions with the Department of Education  talking to inmates who were taking college-level courses in political science, in sociology, in the humanities.  And when I talk to them about the importance of these courses, it goes so much further than just their own individual sense of achievement.  And to a man and a woman, they all say to me, “and now when I talk to my children, I am an example for them.  I am their role model.”  People do not leave their families behind when they go into a federal prison institution.  They don’t leave the connections, and they don’t leave the influence they have on other family members behind.  And by giving them the tools to continue to be strong leaders and role models, to in fact show people, to show children, to show all of us, that all of us are more than the worst thing that we have ever done.  That someone can make a mistake, be held accountable, accept responsibility and grow from that is one of the biggest gifts we can give any of our citizens.  And we at the Department of Justice are committed to doing that. 

And one of the ways that we’re looking to bring in new thought and new expertise is through the Second Chance Act program and I was pleased to introduce the first ever Second Chance Act fellow – a formerly incarcerated individual who is now a lawyer working within the system but also working with us to provide guidance and input on the programs that are most effective and that are most needed to help individuals stay on the right path. 

And later this month, in fact the last week of April, the Department of Justice is joining stakeholders across this country for a National Reentry Week.  I have asked each one of my U.S. Attorneys to host a reentry event focusing on how we help individuals safely and securely come back home to their communities.  I have asked every Bureau of Prisons facility to host reentry events across the country, and we are achieving not just those events, but a connectivity and a contribution from the entire administration that is truly, truly heartwarming.  And we’re going to highlight those programs and the ways in which people come together and support our returning individuals.  From job fairs to family day, to father-daughter dances, to mock interview programs, all the ways in which we can provide the support so that our brothers, our sisters, our fathers and our mothers – so that when our fellow Americans leave these institutions, they can truly, truly find their way home. 

Change can come, and we can make it so.  It can, and we can make it so.  Now of course, I’ve talked a little bit about the use we make of data.  And how that has changed how we view not just our criminal justice policy but how we target our resources as well.  But the other major change in criminal justice thought also – as I alluded to just a moment ago – is how intertwined all of these issues are.  We at the Department of Justice realize we have to take a holistic all-hands-on approach to community empowerment and public safety.  I wanted to just comment on this, how intertwined all of these issues are.  We at the Department of Justice realize we have to take a holistic, all-hands approach to community empowerment and public safety, because the problems that afflict our communities are not isolated from one another, and so we cannot address them in isolation.  We know that the issues of crime, poverty, health, education and housing are inextricably bound together, and that solving them requires cooperation across sectors and across specialties.  And we completely understand that we cannot incarcerate our way out of these problems.  They do not begin with criminal justice and they cannot end with criminal justice.  We are a part of the whole solution.  Instead, we have to build our communities together from the ground up. 

Now of course, when we talk about not just building communities but making safe communities – when we talk about advancing that approach – when we talk about the criminal justice system as a whole – we must of course talk about the role our law enforcement partners plays in this because we are actually asking even more from the brave men and women who wear the badge every day – those dedicated state, local and tribal law enforcement officers who faithfully serve their communities each and every day.  And as people, who actually have the closest connection to the communities that they serve – in fact, often its law enforcement that is the only face of government that many people see.  No matter what the issue, it is often only the police officer or sheriff who is the only face of government that many people see.  And so what we need to do, and our goal for the Department of Justice, is to empower law enforcement not just to be officers of the law but agents of justice.  That means that they too have a role to play in helping individuals who are grappling with a range of issues that could diminish the safety of neighborhoods and harm the wellbeing of residents.  In fact, they are on the frontline of the leading issues and concerns that we have for criminal justice reform. 

Obviously we are talking about a crisis these days of heroin and opioid abuse.  The rising epidemic of a problem that we thought we had under control still remains a criminal justice and public health issue.  Often the first encounter that an individual has in crisis is with law enforcement, which is why we are working to provide guidance on a Law Enforcement Naloxone Toolkit.   It’s actually a medication that provides relief and can in fact be treatment for overdose, because so many of our overdose victims are found not by medical professionals – that they need – but by law enforcement professionals.  This drug can restore breathing after a heroin or opioid overdose, and it gives them time to be taken to a healthcare facility.  This is an example of the interconnection of a law enforcement issue and a public health issue that we have to address by empowering both.  Not just by supporting law enforcement with these resources, but making sure that public health officials also have the resources they need to treat the ones with addiction and harm that we are seeing.  But law enforcement is also increasingly on the frontline of what I do view as one of the next leading crises within criminal justice reform – and of course, that’s the issue of mental health care.  Individuals who are suffering from mental health problems, who also have some significant public health care needs, reach their first level interaction at a point of crisis with law enforcement.  In fact, some of our largest health care facilities these days are our jails.  And that’s what I’ve come to realize as we look at how to improve our prison system.  And when I talk to the wardens and I talk with the sheriffs, and I talk to the committee – and they have a lot of complaints – but I will tell you the one thing that cuts across all is the desperate need for resources to deal with individuals with mental health crises, and finally to support them.

And in some of the forums, I’ve talked to some police departments that actually had dedicated mental health officers – who are on every shift – and they’re not trying to diagnose or treat, they’re trying to recognize the issues and intervene and divert the individual in crisis from a law enforcement response to mental health response. 

We need resources to increase these programs.  We need the resources to increase the support for when individuals reach the hospitals and the institutions and to support those in law enforcement who are committed to – in fact – make sure that those individuals are directed to the right place.  That’s our goal and that’s our focus, and that is frankly going to be next major criminal justice crisis on this issue if we don’t add the resources now.  It is a major, major concern.  And of course law enforcement has a role to play in interacting with young people, which is why our COPS Office – the Community Oriented Policing Office – helps officers who work in schools to develop helpful, supportive relationships with students that ultimately support law enforcement.

Now these relationships are critical.  As you’ve heard, one of my priorities is working on the relationship between law enforcement and the communities we serve.  This ability to do one’s job as a law enforcement officer, safely and effectively, depends upon a level of trust and cooperation and a working relationship – that has to exist.  Now I think to say that this relationship is frayed – particularly in our communities of color – is to utter a profound understatement, but one which we have to recognize and we have to face squarely and deal with.  Now the benefits of a trusting relationship are all so clear to us.  When we have a positive relationship, witnesses come forward, victims are served, law enforcement can do their job.  But without that, when tensions are frayed and the trust isn’t there, we have flash point incidents, we have the type of relationship and dynamic that we’ve seen in so many of our cities over the past year.  And so many of the issues that I saw literally on my first day on the job, when a week after that I went to visit Baltimore. 

After visiting Baltimore and talking not just to the community members and to the officers, but to young people – to high school and college students in Baltimore – about what those issues were and what they needed, I was struck by the profound similarity in what they all were saying.  They all loved their city, they all loved their community and they all wanted to make it better.  How do we get people who have that same goal to come up with solutions that empower everyone and bring them in.?

And with that, I decided to embark upon a Community Policing Tour, and I’ve had the benefit of traveling this great country.  I went to six different cities in 2015, I’m going to six more this year, and I picked cities last year in particular that had a challenged or challenging relationship between law enforcement and the community.  Sometimes a minority community, sometimes African American, sometimes Hispanic, but a challenging relationship – a shooting, a lawsuit or a Department of Justice pattern or practice investigation.  But communities that had been where Baltimore was, had been where Ferguson was, but had managed not a perfect relationship because there is tension inherent in every relationship. But one in which when problems arose there were lines of communication and a means of discussion that avoided the pain and the violence that we saw in other cities. And it led to greater transparency of the issues and problems that did develop.  And I was really tremendously struck by the encouraging work that was underway – all at the local level.  People living in their communities – together to form partnerships; to bolster trust; and to improve public safety.

Now of course there are still challenges out there in this great country.  I remember talking to one young man who was telling me about living in a very difficult neighborhood and he had concerns.  Literally running home from school for his safety but he was also afraid to call the police.  None of our children should ever know that kind of loneliness.  None of our children should ever feel that adrift.  And so the challenge that we face now is continuing to work at that level to listen to those voices and provide that response that tells them that no you are not alone and that they do in fact have someone to call.

I was able to see classrooms where police officers were literally teaching third grade students how to read.  Students from challenged neighborhoods, from difficult schools that were not at the high level of performance, but benefitted from this interaction.  And when I asked how many students in the class would like to be police officers everyone raised their hand.  That’s a challenge – change can happen.  We can make it so.  We can answer those young people who feel alone; we can handle those young people who feel they don’t have anyone to turn to.  But it takes a commitment – it takes an evaluation of everyone’s responsibility for this issue and in this issue.

And this year, 2016, as I travel this great country of ours, I am focusing on the cities that exemplify some of – all of the pillars really – of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century policing.  The change of the initiatives that we are working on to build community trust; to create better data – again so that we can track interactions and help improve all of our safety; to use the media – social media – particularly in a way that improves communication; focus on officer safety and wellness as well.  And I’m looking forward to continuing the tour and seeing the good work that is done then.  Because when I have traveled this great country of ours and I visited communities that have been in distress, that have been in extremes, but have said together we will come back.  I am so heartened to see the level of resolve in those communities.  The partnerships, the hard working that is making them a reality.  I’ve seen people work to bring all these aspirations that we are talking about to life.  And the programs are wonderful.  Young people in a gang resistance program that are also involved in donating food for the homeless.  Police officers taking time to read to school children, as I’ve mentioned.  Making the connections.  Humanizing both sides in interactions in which often all that is seen is a uniform – be it baggy pants or dress blues.  To inmates supporting each other through rehabilitation and job training programs.  I’ve seen the fruits of that, change can happen.  We can make it so.  And what this police tour has brought home to me is the importance of the work we are doing together to reform our criminal justice system and to advance policing practices has to stay current.  Has to reflect the needs the concerns of the real people who are affected by it every day. 

The key in every interaction I have seen is that when people finish talking at each other, they sit down and talk to each other.  And without that we see polarization and distance.  But where we see that level of communication, where we see that level even when it is painful to hear – that someone doesn’t have faith in the criminal justice system; that someone has concerns about law enforcement; or that law enforcement has concerns about how they’re viewed – even when it is painful when we talk to each other we are stronger and can come together.  We learn, we grow, and we build, and we give ourselves the chance to make all of our institutions live up to our highest ideals.  To chart the new paths that are needed in order to truly effect reform in our criminal justice system, in our policing community and in our world.

Now as you can probably tell, I am tremendously proud of the work that the Department of Justice is doing to achieve all of these objectives.  But we are not alone in this fight and nor can we bear this alone.  It takes all of us.  It takes all of us from Cabinet level, to community level to the individual on the street.  It takes breaking down the silos of responsibility that always too often constrain our progress and it means forging new partnerships with people that you may not have thought to talk to about these issues but may in fact have an answer for us.  And it will require being involved with everyone here today.  Most especially, and I say this to the students of this great university, it will require you. Because the work I just described today is your work tomorrow and we’ll be looking to you to pick up this task and lead us all forward.

Now just as this task spans more than one agency, it also has to span more than one administration.  This is not just a Department of Justice effort or issue; this is not just and Obama Administration effort or issue, this is an American effort and issue.  None of these challenges happened over night and they won’t be fixed tomorrow but we have made tremendous, tremendous, progress.  Change can happen and we can make it so. And when I’m together with a room full of people with the dedication, with the commitment, with the passion I know you all bring to this work, I’m optimistic about what we can achieve.  I am confident about the future and I know we can do great things together.

So, I want to thank you for letting me open up this great forum and spend just a few minutes with you this morning and letting me honor my dear friend David Dinkins.  Thank you for your commitment, for the work that has still yet to be done and thank you so much for believing that change can happen and thank you for always working to make it so.  Thank you so very much.

Updated December 11, 2017