Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, President [Sarah] Wartell for that generous introduction; for your decades of service to the cause of a stronger and more just United States; and for your visionary leadership of this distinguished organization. It is a pleasure to be here and it is a privilege to join this outstanding group of inspiring leaders, distinguished scholars and devoted public servants as we gather to discuss our approach to one of the most persistent and pressing challenges facing our society: the barriers that still prevent far too many of our fellow citizens from enjoying what President Lyndon Johnson once called “the full blessings of American life.”
There could hardly be a more fitting venue for this urgent discussion. After all, it was President Johnson who encouraged the establishment of the Urban Institute in 1968 for the express purpose of helping policymakers better understand the forces that hold communities back, even in our era of unprecedented innovation and prosperity. He knew that effective social policy requires a foundation of careful research, comprehensive data and impartial analysis and he envisioned the Urban Institute as the intellectual hub that would provide all three of those vital elements.
In the nearly half century since your founding, you have become an indispensable center for scholarship on issues ranging from criminal justice and poverty to youth development and health care. You equip our leaders with reliable data, helping them to make sound decisions that promote the common good. You enrich our public debate with reasoned proposals, challenging our nation to transcend old divisions with fresh approaches. And you empower our communities with critical knowledge, giving them the understanding they need to tackle the tough problems that smother development and stifle opportunity. In these and in so many other ways, the Urban Institute has played a key role in our nation’s progress over the last 50 years. And in areas of concern where well-meaning anecdote often rules the day, you have brought laser-like focus to answer three essential questions: What has worked? What has not? And what more can we do?
What more can we do? That is the question that we are gathered to address. And it is an urgent question. For as we stand here today, far too many Americans still struggle to afford the basic necessities of life, much less costly medical procedures or a college education. Far too many Americans live in communities where opportunity is scarce yet violence is common. Far too many Americans become trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration whose corrosive effects are passed down from generation to generation. And so, when we ask, “What more can we do?” there is only one answer: We can and must do so much more.
But it is not enough to simply design new programs or spend more money. We have to learn the lessons that we’ve been taught by decades of experience – lessons borne out by the research conducted here at the Urban Institute. What has worked? What has not? What more can we do? We have to understand that the challenges we face are too complex, too deeply rooted and too closely entwined with one another to be surmounted by one single agency focusing on one single problem. Gone are the days when the police were tasked with fighting crime and nothing else, or when a child’s life outside the classroom was not a teacher’s concern. Today, we know that issues of crime, poverty, health, education, public transit and housing are inextricably bound together. Violence, for example, has an impact far beyond a crime scene. It can keep children from making their way safely to school. And violence inside our schools is as much of a barrier to education as a learning disability. In already challenged communities, violence deters economic investment, shrinking the tax base, eroding infrastructure and making it harder for residents to find meaningful work. The debilitating combination of diminished academic achievement and higher unemployment will likely lead to more poverty, which often correlates with more crime. And so the cycle – and the struggle – continues, with the result that in the United States, a person’s zip code is far too often a predictor of his or her fate and birth becomes the ultimate lottery. In a nation founded on the belief that every person has an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that kind of immobility is not just harmful – it is immoral and antithetical to our most cherished ideals.
The good news is that thanks to the tireless efforts of groups like the Urban Institute, we’re shifting our approach. At every level, policymakers, law enforcement officers, educators and community leaders like you are coming together to break down barriers, to forge new partnerships and to develop strategies that comprehensively address this tangled web of social ills. The federal government is playing a key part in this effort. Since day one, the Obama Administration has advanced an all-hands approach to community empowerment, instructing federal agencies to think in terms of comprehensive solutions and broad coalitions, not piecemeal steps and narrow silos. And I am proud to say that at the Department of Justice – the only Cabinet agency named for an ideal – we are working tirelessly to ensure that all Americans enjoy the security and opportunity that is their birthright.
That work begins with improving public safety. Nothing is more damaging to communities than the shadow of violence, and at the Department of Justice, we are working alongside our partners to build a nation where violent crime stalks no one’s daily life. And today, as part of that effort, I am proud to announce more than $5 million in grants to 16 jurisdictions nationwide as part of our Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative. In each Project Safe Neighborhoods district, the local U.S. Attorney brings together local law enforcement and community leaders with federal officials to implement unified and proactive strategies for reducing and preventing gang and gun violence. This is one of our most promising initiatives for advancing community-based solutions to violent crime and we look forward to working closely with our grantees in the months ahead. And because we need to take special steps to protect our most precious resource – our children – I’m also proud to announce today more than $67 million in grants to 25 districts as part of our Comprehensive School Safety Initiative. This program funds important efforts like protection for students as they walk to and from school and mental health programming, all of which help to ensure that students can study in secure and positive environments that offer a gateway to opportunity – not a pipeline to prison.
One significant way that we can reduce crime at the same time we expand opportunity is by giving formerly incarcerated Americans a truly meaningful second chance at life. Every year, more than 600,000 people – mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, our fellow Americans – return home from state and federal prisons. It is up to us to decide whether we neglect them – denying ourselves their potential and making it more likely that they will re-offend – or whether we give them every opportunity to use their skills and talents to contribute to their communities as productive and law-abiding citizens. That choice is really no choice at all and the Justice Department is working closely with our partners across the Administration to help our returning citizens find their place in their communities once they have paid their debt to society. I have the privilege of helping to chair the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which brings together more than 20 federal agencies to achieve that goal and under the Council’s auspices, we’re undertaking some exciting initiatives. We’ve worked with the Department of Education to make some inmates eligible for federal Pell grants – because education remains the ladder to opportunity. We’ve joined with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to explore ways to help formerly incarcerated individuals find stable housing upon release – because a home connects one to a community. We have funded reentry legal services for justice-involved youth living in public housing, so that they can get eligible records expunged or sealed. To that end, we have also collaborated with the Department of Labor on the National Clean Slate Clearinghouse, which helps local legal aid programs expand their ability to help clients with record-cleaning and expungement – because everyone deserves to be seen as a person, not just a number and a side view. Together, these partnerships significantly reinforce the work being done within the Bureau of Prisons to significantly expand our education and vocational programs, mental health services and substance abuse treatment programs – because while people are in our custody, we owe them our care.
Improving reentry outcomes is one way to empower our communities. Ending the systemic criminalization of poverty is another. I have been a prosecutor for over 20 years. I have seen crime. I have seen poverty. They are often, but not always, found together. But they are not the same thing. Nevertheless, we have seen jurisdictions routinely impose excessive bail for minor offenses and people without means often languish in jail – not because they’ve been convicted of a crime, not because they pose a risk of flight, but because they are poor. And the inability to pay a high cost traffic ticket can, in many jurisdictions, trap low income Americans in a cycle of fees and fines that pulls them into a downward spiral. In our Ferguson report, we documented the case of one Ferguson resident who received two traffic tickets in 2007, for a total fine of $152. But by 2015, she had paid the city $550 – and yet she had spent six days in jail and still owed the city $541. When we hear the term “debtors’ prison,” we often think of a scene from Dickens. But for too many Americans, they have literally been thrown behind its bars. Finally, our criminal justice system will never function as it should unless we ensure that in every state, the right to counsel set forth in the Sixth Amendment is a meaningful reality – not the empty promise that it is in far too many of our jurisdictions today.
Changing this reality requires the commitment of state and local authorities, where the majority of these decisions are made. But that does not mean the federal government is standing still. As in Ferguson, we raise these issues as part of our work to ensure constitutional policing. In March, the Justice Department sent a letter to state court judges and administrators across the country on the issue of excessive fees and fines, reminding them of their obligation to consider a defendant’s ability to pay and urging them to consider alternatives to jail, such as community service, for poor defendants who can’t pay their fines and court fees. Consistent with this focus, Our Office of Justice Programs has offered $2.5 million in grants to municipalities looking to rethink their use of fines and fees. And the overhaul of these practices has been a cornerstone of OJP’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI, a groundbreaking effort to reduce local jail costs and populations. With funding from our Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Urban Institute has carefully studied JRI. Your latest study, which was released just last month, highlighted some of the program’s notable achievements – from New York City, where we helped launch a new supervised release program to reduce the number of people sent to Rikers Island; to Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where a license restoration clinic is helping citizens maintain their driving eligibility when their licenses are revoked for non-traffic violations – a small step that has enormous implications for everything from taking children to school to maintaining employment. Let me take this moment to thank the Urban Institute for its attention to these issues, which helps us to improve the assistance we offer to local partners like the ones gathered here today. We could not do this without you.
At the same that we’re changing bail and fine practices, we also have to work to expand low-income Americans’ access to legal aid. Every day, countless Americans are in court grappling with life-altering challenges like foreclosure, eviction, debt and family instability – far too often, doing so without counsel. In eviction cases, for instance, 90 percent of landlords have counsel, whereas 95 percent of tenants represent themselves. In 85 percent of cases dealing with child custody and child support, literally the heart of the family, at least one parent is self-represented. Here, too, the Obama Administration is acting. Together with Cecilia Munoz, the Director of the Domestic Policy Council, I co-chair the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, or LAIR, a joint effort of 22 federal agencies. LAIR works alongside local organizations to close the justice gap by expanding access to legal aid.
Closing the justice gap means ensuring that every American is treated equally in the eyes of the law. But as we’ve seen, in too many of our communities, the relationship between law enforcement and the communities we serve is severely frayed or outright broken. That is why one of my top priorities as Attorney General is building trust between law enforcement and the community. Shortly after taking office, I began a 12-city community policing tour to learn about and to highlight some of the innovative work underway around the country. What I saw inspired me: from a program in Cincinnati that puts police officers into local schools as tutors and mentors, to cutting-edge de-escalation training in Phoenix, to a youth advisory board that helps shape policing policy in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
These are the kinds of programs endorsed by the final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the Justice Department is determined to help them succeed. In May, the COPS Office joined with two nonprofits – CNA and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, or IACP – to establish the Advancing 21st Century Policing Initiative. This initiative will work closely with 15 jurisdictions that are making notable strides in advancing task force recommendations. It will develop implementation guides, which will be widely distributed to over 18,000 local, state and tribal law enforcement agencies through the IACP's Center for Community-Police Relations, helping to spread best practices of community policing throughout the country. And in this, arguably the most impactful work of our time, we once again turned to the Urban Institute, partnering with you to publish a report that sets forth how law enforcement agencies can ensure that their use of stop-and-frisk is lawful, responsible and effective. We also continue our vital work funding the purchase of bulletproof vests and body-worn cameras. And in the wake of the tragedies in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas, I began convening a series of regional Justice Forums, where community stakeholders can begin to come together to identify the challenges before them, to find common ground and to seek a way forward together.
As you can probably tell, I am tremendously proud of all we have accomplished under the Obama Administration. the essential question, however, still remains – what more can we do to realize the Great Society that President Johnson spoke about so often – the great society that the Urban Institute was founded to help bring into existence and that all of you toil to create in your communities each and every day. What more can we do to empower our communities? What more can we do to improve individual human lives? What more can we do to vindicate the simple promise that gave birth to our nation more than 200 years ago and that has guided our progress ever since: the promise that we are all equal – and that we all deserve to live in safety, in harmony and in dignity.
I want to thank each and every one of you for keeping faith with that promise. I want to thank you for all that you do to lift your communities up and to propel them forward. And I pledge to you that the Department of Justice will continue to stand beside you in our shared pursuit of a safer, a stronger and a greater society. Thank you.