Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good afternoon – and thank you for the opportunity to be here today. I want to express my gratitude to President [Melba] Pearson for that kind introduction and for her outstanding leadership of the National Black Prosecutors Association (NBPA). I’d also like to recognize former president [Bruce Terry] Brown for his commitment to this organization and to the cause that brings us together today. It’s a pleasure to be among so many extraordinary partners, exceptional colleagues and good friends. It’s a privilege to stand with such an inspiring and committed group of public servants dedicated to progress, leadership and justice. And it’s a profoundly humbling honor to receive the Presidential Award of Excellence from the members of this remarkable association, which has been a source of support and inspiration for me since I was a young prosecutor.
For more than three decades, the NBPA has provided assistance and encouragement to countless individuals who seek to contribute to law enforcement and public safety. Through intensive and innovative training, you have strengthened the ability of current and aspiring law enforcement personnel to perform their duties with professionalism and excellence. Through outreach and advocacy, you have sought out and supported young people interested in public service and careers in law. And through forums like this one, as well as regional and national events around the country, you are deepening the knowledge and engagement of black law enforcement professionals in the challenges and opportunities of our time.
This is a particularly significant moment for the law enforcement community. In recent years, this nation has begun to question the ways in which we perform a wide range of law enforcement functions, from charging and sentencing to rehabilitation and reentry. We have begun to examine how much of our reliance on incarceration is appropriate or effectual. And we have begun to search for ways to make our criminal justice system more efficient, more effective and more fair. These are issues that NBPA has championed since its inception. You have long been the voice of thoughtful consideration; the voice of inclusion; the voice that speaks for all who are impacted by our criminal justice system. And at no time has that voice been more important, more timely or more necessary than it is today.
I am proud to say that the Department of Justice is committed to these efforts. Two years ago, my predecessor, Attorney General Eric Holder, launched the Smart on Crime initiative – a groundbreaking endeavor designed to reorient the way we approach criminal justice issues at every step of the process. Through that program, the Justice Department modified its charging policies for certain low-level drug offenses to ensure that individuals convicted of crimes would face sentences commensurate with their conduct – enabling us to direct our limited criminal justice resources where they belong, toward violent criminals, drug kingpins and high-level traffickers. We refocused attention on a range of cutting-edge, evidence-based diversion programs, like drug rehabilitation and community service initiatives, to reduce recidivism and lessen the burden on law enforcement officers. We invested in improved reentry processes to help formerly-incarcerated individuals return to their communities as productive citizens – in part by directing every United States Attorney to designate a Prevention and Reentry Coordinator in his or her district and by working with law enforcement partners and state Attorneys General to examine and mitigate collateral consequences. And we sought to end the school-to-prison pipeline by pushing back against onerous zero-tolerance school discipline policies that too often send young people – particularly young people of color – on a well-worn path from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse.
These are vital steps forward and they are having a significant effect – due in large part to the outstanding work of prosecutors across the country who are using their discretion thoughtfully and with an appreciation for the central role prosecutors play in sustaining and improving our criminal justice system. As President Obama noted last week, we are pursuing mandatory minimum sentences on the federal level 20 percent less often than we did the year before Smart on Crime, while solving just as many cases and achieving just as many plea bargains. In fact, last year, America’s crime rate and incarceration rate declined simultaneously – the first time that has occurred in four decades. And we expect to build on this progress in a number of areas. At the president’s direction, I will be reexamining our use of solitary confinement as a form of incarceration. I intend to work with bipartisan supporters of criminal justice reform in Congress to advance much-needed legislation. And I plan to help strengthen the way we carry out justice on the local level – in our towns and neighborhoods and on our city streets – beginning with the relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
You know better than most how important those relationships are. You recognize that, for too many and for too long, minority communities have looked at law enforcement as something imposed upon them, not someone coming to help them. And you know what that does to a community – to a people. It leaves them without someone to call when they are cold and lonely and frightened; without someone to look out for them when they are threatened; and ultimately, without hope. We know that all communities, and especially minority communities, deserve better. They deserve the full protection of the law. After all, when officers and residents share reliable and resilient bonds, residents are more likely to help with investigations; victims and witnesses of crime are more likely to come forward; and all of us in law enforcement are better able to assist our neighbors and constituents when they are in danger – or simply in need of a helping hand. We recognize that repairing divides will take all of our best efforts – from those of us charged with prosecuting misconduct, to the community members who understand their neighborhoods best.
In the last few months, I have begun a six-city tour to highlight innovative new practices and important collaborations focused on strengthening these vital relationships – and even at this early stage, I have seen promising signs of progress. In Cincinnati, Ohio, I spoke with civic and public safety leaders from all backgrounds who described the way their collaboration has transformed the city into a more welcoming and inclusive place. Cincinnati is now facing another challenge with a life lost. Our hope is that the relationships that have been built will produce an informed citizenry, a responsive police force and an open and transparent process towards justice. In Birmingham, Alabama, I heard from community members who praised their police leadership and from young people whose new friendships with officers had fundamentally and positively changed their perceptions of those who wear the badge. And just yesterday, I was in East Haven, Connecticut – where, four years ago, a Justice Department investigation found that the police department was engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing against Latino residents.
Today, as a result of the collaboration between the Department of Justice and the town of East Haven developed through a court-enforceable agreement, the East Haven Police Department has experienced a profound cultural shift. The police have embraced the challenge of earning back the confidence of the neighborhoods they serve. Community members who spoke eloquently about being victimized by the police in recent years spoke about seeing officers today and being met with respect and cooperation. And law enforcement officers are working not only to fulfill the terms of the agreement, but to make their department a model statewide. The independent monitor overseeing the agreement described the progress the town has made as “truly remarkable” – and while there remains a long road ahead, the community members I spoke with – law enforcement officers, faith leaders, civic officials and young people – are optimistic and hopeful about what they can achieve together. This can be done.
In the coming weeks, I will continue my tour in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Seattle, Washington; and Richmond, California. I am eager to see the innovation and collaboration these cities have spearheaded, and I am excited by the possibilities of applying their efforts, their lessons and their insights in communities from coast to coast that are struggling with similar issues.
The progress these cities are making is a reminder that the legal profession has a vital role to play in advancing the cause we share. By approaching our responsibilities with a commitment to what is right, what is fair and what is just, we can make profound, positive and lasting differences in the well-being of our neighborhoods and the standing of our profession. By remaining open to new ideas and dedicated to progress, we can expand and extend the promise of law and public service in communities throughout this country. And by striving to improve the application of our laws, to replace outmoded assumptions with contemporary insights and to promote positive outcomes for the public we serve, we can fulfill the central responsibility of prosecutors at all levels throughout this nation’s history: not only to apply the law, but to do justice.
That mission is particularly important and especially meaningful, for those of us in this room today. If, as W.E.B. Du Bois said so eloquently of the black experience in America, “one ever feels his two-ness…Two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” – then it is fair to say that those of us in law enforcement feel it most of all. But I have always believed that our presence within law enforcement is vital precisely because we understand the tensions inherent in a diverse community. We recognize the struggle to make harmony from discord. And we are determined to reconcile the two-ness of our own society and to bring our dogged strength to the challenges of our time.
As men and women of color, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to ensure that law enforcement officers serve as partners to citizens in every community – no matter who those residents are, what they look like or where they live. We have a duty to insist that the law lives up to the enduring values that make this nation exceptional, not only in its word or intent, but in its execution. And we have an obligation to extend our hands to those who have been let down, left out and left behind in order to help build the more inclusive, more united and more just society that all Americans deserve.
This work is difficult. It takes time and deep commitment. But in a country created for the people, by the people, it is incumbent on all of us to consider how we can bring our common society closer to the ideals of its founding, how we can forge the more perfect Union that our founders promised and how we can create the more beloved community that generations have fought to build. I want you to know that I am committed to that fight and dedicated to bringing the full resources of the Department of Justice to bear in its service. And as I look around this distinguished gathering – at so many steadfast stewards of the law, keepers of the peace and guardians of all those whom the law protects and empowers – I cannot help but be optimistic about where our efforts will lead us from here. Thank you, once again, for your remarkable service, your inspiring leadership and your unshakable fidelity to our most deeply-held values and highest ideals. I look forward to all that we will achieve together. Keep up the outstanding work.