Justice News

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch Delivers Remarks at the National Association of Attorneys General Annual Winter Conference
Washington, DC
United States
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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Attorney General [Marty] Jackley, for that kind introduction, for your impressive record of service to the people of South Dakota and for your stewardship of this distinguished organization.  It’s a pleasure to welcome you all to Washington this morning and it’s a privilege to stand with so many outstanding colleagues as we look back at the progress we have made and plan for the challenges that lie ahead.

I know what a remarkable group this is, because in my time as Attorney General, you have been indispensable partners in securing some of our most noteworthy collective achievements – and I am so pleased to be here today to say “thank you.”  From obtaining a $20 billion resolution against BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy – the largest settlement against a single entity in American history – to resolving claims against Morgan Stanley’s residential mortgage-backed securities business just two weeks ago, those of us in federal law enforcement have repeatedly relied on your expertise and your experience to pursue the goals that we share.  Far beyond the title of “Attorney General,” those goals are what unite us all – because what we have in common and what we are all sworn to advance, is the timeless and vitally important mission of ensuring the safety of our communities and the security of our nation.

For more than a century, the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) has been driving that mission forward.  By bringing together the top law enforcement officers of America’s states and territories, NAAG has provided a crucial forum for examining issues of mutual concern and disseminating proven strategies.  At a time when our national discourse is so often fractured and contentious, you adhere to the spirit of bipartisanship, to the value of collaboration and to the power of speaking with one voice on issues of consequence to the American people.  You have fostered cooperative relationships between states, with the federal government and with private industry partners.  You have held our profession to the highest standards of excellence and integrity.  And through it all, you have aided our nation’s longstanding efforts to deliver justice to those whose rights, freedoms and safety have been infringed.

I am grateful that you are standing guard in the service of your respective jurisdictions, ensuring the security of those in your charge.  And I am fortunate that we share many of the same priorities, as I depend on your contributions to make the kind of progress we would all like to see.  You are keeping watch over the communities you know so well and protecting our national security by identifying the seeds of homegrown terrorism before they take root.  You’re on the ground monitoring threats to our cyber security and safeguarding our information networks against intrusions.  And you’re instrumental to our nationwide push to end human trafficking, assist trafficking survivors and lift up some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

That’s something that’s very important to me and to my colleagues at the Department of Justice.  Human trafficking is one of the most invisible yet pernicious crimes we see and it takes many horrific forms – from involuntary labor in squalid working conditions with little or no pay, to the sexual enslavement of teenagers – and even young children.  But in every awful instance, human traffickers are acting as the modern equivalent of slave-owners – a practice that has no place in any civilized nation and certainly not in a country that ratified the Thirteenth Amendment over a century and a half ago.  When I was a prosecutor in Brooklyn, I was deeply moved by my interactions with the victims of this heinous crime.  I learned about the trauma they endured and I was inspired by the unimaginable courage they summoned to ensure that their tormentors were brought to justice.  Those experiences remain vivid in my mind and in my heart to this day and they provide the backdrop for my continuing focus on human trafficking as a priority for law enforcement at all levels.

Since becoming Attorney General last year, I have expanded a promising program known as the Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team Initiative.  It’s a highly collaborative, victim-centered approach to human trafficking investigations that brings together officials and experts from across the federal government, often in conjunction with state and local authorities.  We are also operating at the local level through our Enhanced Collaborative Model Program, which has disbursed tens of millions of dollars to municipalities in order to enhance collaboration between law enforcement and victims’ services providers.  And to raise greater awareness of human trafficking at the state and local levels, as well as within the general public, we released a video series last month called “The Faces of Human Trafficking,” which identifies some of the telltale signs of human trafficking, as well as some best practices for building survivor-centered cases.  Through these efforts and many others, we are sending a resounding message from coast to coast: that no matter where perpetrators lurk, we will find them and bring them to justice; and no matter how powerless their victims may feel, they are not invisible in the eyes of the law.

That knowledge – that when you are frightened and alone and feel you have nowhere to turn, officers of the law will be in your corner and on your side – is a promise at the core of our criminal justice system.  And yet, for residents in too many communities – often those most plagued by vicious cycles of poverty, criminality and incarceration – that promise feels as if it is going unmet.  In too many neighborhoods, law enforcement officers lack the tools and the training they need to perform their difficult and often dangerous responsibilities.  Those conditions have caused long-simmering tensions to reach a boiling point in communities across the nation – and particularly in recent years, we have seen the toxic unrest and tragic violence that can result.  In order to combat these challenges, we all must take action to reduce crime, to build community trust and to strengthen the core of equality and opportunity that has always been at the heart of this exceptional nation.

At the Department of Justice, we are intent on doing exactly that.  In my earliest days as Attorney General, I launched a community-policing tour to highlight how some cities have successfully resolved problems that continue to afflict many others.  I am in the second phase of that tour now, which I kicked off in Doral and Miami, Florida, two weeks ago and which will continue on to Portland, Oregon, next week.  In the cities I have visited so far, I have seen community members and law enforcement officers working shoulder-to-shoulder to move past destructive dynamics that once defined their neighborhoods.  I have seen skepticism and mistrust give way to open dialogue and mutual understanding.  And I have seen officers and young people form trusting and supportive relationships that I am certain will grow and endure in years to come.

I know we can make change happen, because I have seen change happen.  This is the reason we have led so many efforts at the state and local levels to make our shared vision a reality.  For example, our Civil Rights Division has worked to institute constitutional safeguards in police departments across the country, generating a blueprint for reform that other departments are emulating as they strive to provide constitutional policing in their own jurisdictions.  In addition, our Office of Justice Programs and our Office of Community Oriented Policing Services continue to offer significant grants, training opportunities and technical assistance to state and local law enforcement to help ensure that police forces nationwide are well trained, highly skilled and fully supported.

Enhancing community-police relations is just one component of this Administration’s holistic approach to law enforcement and criminal justice more broadly.  We are also working hard to keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place by promoting mentorship opportunities like the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative; by speaking out against zero-tolerance school-discipline policies; and by addressing some of the problems that stifle opportunity and make criminal behavior more likely – from poverty, to failing schools, to inadequate mental health services.  Through the Smart on Crime initiative – launched by my predecessor, Eric Holder, in 2013 – we’re directing our prosecutorial resources at the most serious crimes, while investing in diversion and treatment programs like drug courts and veteran’s courts.  And we’re placing a renewed focus on rehabilitation and reentry in order to reduce recidivism, promote public safety and ensure that formerly incarcerated individuals can return to their communities as productive citizens with a meaningful new chance at a better life.

As we all know, improving rehabilitation programs and reentry outcomes doesn’t just help formerly incarcerated individuals; it’s also good for our communities as a whole.  More than 600,000 people are released from federal, state and local prisons every year and their ability to stay on the right path and stay out of the criminal justice system has a tremendous impact on the safety of our neighborhoods and the strength of our nation.  That’s why the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which I am proud to chair, has brought together more than 20 federal agencies to curb recidivism and foster better prospects for employment, education, housing, healthcare and child welfare.  It’s why the Department of Justice is forging partnerships with the Departments of Education, Labor, Housing and Urban Development and others to boost opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals and eliminate unnecessary collateral consequences of incarceration.  And it’s why our Office of Justice Programs has offered nearly 750 Second Chance Act grants since 2009, totaling more than $400 million to support reentry efforts in 49 states.

Beyond these and other efforts at the Department of Justice, we are working with Congress to support meaningful legislation that combines front-end sentencing reforms and back-end corrections reforms.  Over the past several months, we’ve seen important progress: sentencing and corrections legislation has been reported out of both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees and both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate have spoken out about the pressing need for reform.  The Department of Justice will continue to support federal sentencing laws that reduce the overreliance on mandatory-minimum sentences and improve federal probation and supervised-release programs. 

Of course, the Department of Justice and the Obama Administration cannot do this work alone.  As the chief law enforcement officers of this country’s states and territories, you have the ability to bring about much-needed change.  Over the past several years, many of you have led the way in helping enact justice system reforms in your own jurisdictions.  This Administration has supported your work through efforts like the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), which helps states identify the drivers of rising corrections costs and develop solutions to reduce spending and increase public safety.  JRI is currently active in 24 states and the experiences of states like Georgia and North Carolina demonstrate that JRI-involved states can both achieve significant reform – including reductions to incarceration rates – and produce savings while simultaneously enhancing public safety.  Since 2011, Georgia’s prison population has dropped by 8 percent, instead of growing by 8 percent as projected, saving funds and reducing crowding.  North Carolina’s prison population has decreased by almost 3,400 people since 2011 and the state has used savings from the closure of 10 prisons to add 175 probation and parole officers and to invest in intervention and treatment programs.  At the same time, North Carolina’s crime rate has plunged 11 percent. 

We will continue to support programs like JRI – and additional efforts that seek to make our criminal justice system more efficient, more effective and more fair across the board.  In fact, President Obama’s budget for this coming fiscal year would invest $500 million in states’ comprehensive criminal justice reform efforts as part of the “21st Century Justice Initiative” – supporting a range of projects, from improving policing, to reducing unnecessary incarceration, to bolstering re-entry services.  This is an exciting and groundbreaking initiative and I am hopeful that Congress will move forward in support of its goals. 

The Administration has also taken critical steps to stem the tide of gun violence in this country.  As you know, at the beginning of this year, the President unveiled a series of executive actions that clarify existing legal provisions pertaining to firearms and streamline enforcement efforts.  A key concern underlying the actions was how to keep guns out of the hands of those who are prohibited by law from having them – including convicted felons, domestic abusers and those with certain mental health conditions.  This is an area in which you have a vital role to play, by contributing to and strengthening the National Instant Criminal Background System.

Our background check system, as it stands, has successfully prevented the sale of more than 2 million guns to people who could not legally purchase them and I am pleased to say that the states and territories you represent have been instrumental to that achievement.  Over the last three years, you increased the number of records you made available for background checks by nearly 70 percent.  At the same time, we know that the system will be even better when the database is more complete.  That’s why I sent a letter to the governors of your states and territories last month that emphasized how important it is for you to provide complete criminal history data and records of those prohibited by reason of mental illness that we can search when performing background checks.

I want to reiterate that call today.  We need your help to make the national background check system as robust, as accurate and as up-to-date as possible – and that includes removing legal and technological barriers that have needlessly kept some states from reporting fully in the past.  The FBI will be announcing each state’s reporting status for the first time next month and we stand ready to help you improve your reporting in any way we can, both now and in the future.  The bottom line is that the more records you make available, the more you will enhance the safety and security of the states you serve.

That, of course, is an objective we can all support.  Reducing violence, building trust, strengthening communities, spreading opportunity – these are the reasons we do what we do.  These are the goals we sacrifice to advance.  As attorneys general, we have been given a rare opportunity – and, as I see it, a moral obligation – to bring justice to those who suffer its absence, to protect the weak from the strong and to take up the vital charge to leave our communities more secure, to make the people we serve safer and to make the world a better place.  I know that all of us, no matter how long we’ve worn this mantle, are still just idealistic enough to do exactly that. 

Thank you for still being idealistic.  Thank you for still being starry-eyed and optimistic.  Thank you for being both dreamers and doers.  And most of all, thank you for your dedicated service to the people in whose name we fight the good fight every day. 

Thank you all.

Updated September 29, 2016