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Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch Delivers Remarks at White House Convening on Incarceration and Poverty


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as delivered

Well good morning everyone.  Ok it’s early – there’s still energy – Good morning everyone. 

Ok, we need that energy because we have a lot to talk about and we have a lot to do.

Let me echo Ms. [Valerie] Jarrett’s words about the tragic events in California yesterday just before we move on to that.  As you may have heard, the Department of Justice has dispatched the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the U.S. Marshals Service personnel to the scene as soon as that assault began, and we continue to work closely alongside our state and local law enforcement partners who are working so hard on the scene and its aftermath.  And, let me assure you, that as this investigation unfolds we will be offering any and all assistance necessary to the local authorities and to the people of San Bernardino who have been so profoundly affected by this unspeakable crime.  And let me simply say, that whatever the results of this investigation, we don’t know a lot right now, but one thing is clear: that violence like this has no place in this country and in this nation.

This is not what we stand for, this is not what we do, this is not what we work for, it is not what we live for - it is antithetical to our values.  Now I don’t have any operational updates for you at this time, those will come later from the local authorities who are on the scene.  But I do want to express not only my deepest condolences, but I also ask that you join me in standing with our colleagues, our friends, our partners in San Bernardino who are suffering with this, and add all of our thoughts and prayers to them at this time; along with them and also the brave public safety officials who have put themselves in harm’s way to stop this assault and to save others.  So I thank you, Ms. Jarrett, for that moment of silence and I thank all of you for your continued support as we move forward with this investigation.

Now of course, today’s announcement is of a matter really of equal seriousness, but of long-standing concern.  I’m really pleased to be able to be here today.  I’m actually thrilled that this event is being held here today, now, at this time.  We’re at a point where these issues have come together really like never before in law enforcement thought and in our nation’s history.  And it gives us a wonderful opportunity and a wonderful moment to really make significant change.  You all are such a distinguished group of advocates, of lawmakers, judges, experts – and we’re all here to talk about today how we can ensure that our legal system serves every American faithfully, fairly, regardless of their economic systems.

So let me pose the beginning question of the day: What is the price of justice?  What is the price of justice?  Some 52 years after Gideon vs. Wainwright was decided by the Supreme Court, we are still – still seeing ways in which one of our most cherished ideals has been overlaid with costs that are really borne by those who can least afford to pay and few questions are more deserving of our time and attention.  And I think this is really one of the leading criminal justice questions of the day because the work that we do in this area is not only intertwined with the experiences – the everyday experiences – of people in this country and the way in which those experiences shape their future.  But it is also emblematic of the way in which we administer one of our most cherished and essential ideals. 

And to begin to answer this question: What is the price of justice?  Requires us to go back to the essential promise of our criminal justice system, which is equal justice for all.  And it requires us to work to ensure that all of our efforts serve that end.  Now, as you’re going to talk about today and you’ve heard a little about in the preview, we have made great progress in recent years.  I am tremendously proud of the work that the Department of Justice has been doing to keep this issue – equal justice for all – in all applications of the law at the forefront of everything that we do. 

Under my predecessor, and your friend, former Attorney General Eric Holder, the department launched the Smart on Crime Initiative to make our criminal justice system more efficient, more effective and more fair.  Today, we are seeing Congressmen and women from both sides of the aisle, lawmakers from both sides, in bipartisan support for legislation that would reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes.  Whether it is because of a recognition of the essential unfairness that has been visited on some of our population, or also a recognition of the economic cost that ultimately is also born by those communities, it matters not.  It is a unique moment in time, in which we have come together to finally focus on the effects of our system.  And also because at its heart an effective criminal justice system requires the faith and the participation of not just those in law enforcement, but those of us that we serve. 

I have made it one of my top priorities as Attorney General to help repair community trust where it is has been eroded.  Now in September, I recently completed a six-city Community Policing Tour which allowed me to learn from a variety of law enforcement agencies, civic leaders and local services in six very challenged jurisdictions that have worked hard to pull themselves back from the brink and to find a way to communicate.  I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of sitting with everyday people who made it their job to find ways to find common ground between the mom at home and the cop on the beat, the kid at school and the police officer driving down the street, to build confidence in the system – not in any one person, but in a process that lets everyone have a voice. 

Now these are important steps and it’s been heartening for me as I travel the country to look for things and then share with other jurisdictions that are struggling with these same issues.  But, as I travel the country it’s all too clear that we have so much more work to do before we truly realize the idea of equal justice for all.  Because, as is the topic of the day and the topic for all of you, it has become painfully clear – and that I do mean painfully clear – that in so many instances an individual’s access to justice has become predicated on their ability to literally pay for it. 

What is the price of justice?  What is the price of justice?  When bail is set unreasonably high, people are behind bars only because they are poor.  Not because they’re a danger or a flight risk – only because they are poor.  They don’t have money to get out of jail and they certainly don’t have money to flee anywhere.  Other people who do have the means can avoid the system setting inequality in place from the beginning.  And when fines and fees are imposed on top of the jail sentences even after offenders have paid their debt to society – and that’s what we have said.  We have determined as a society, as a country, as a people, that the incarceration and the supervision and the specific fines for a particular crime are that person’s debt to society. 

And a debt must be capable of being paid, if it is not instead a lifetime yolk of servitude.  Let me repeat that: a debt must be capable of being paid, if it is not instead a lifetime yolk of servitude.  And even before, in Gideon vs. Wainwright, we had a Constitutional amendment that ended that.  Now, as we’ve talked about also, the fines for minor things like traffic violations, literally getting to work, getting around and living your life, can often carry additional administrative fees, they can carry jail time, in a city, in a country where we have ruled that debtors prisons are unconstitutional, too many of our citizens are simply in jail because they don’t have the money to get out.  In America, because they don’t have the money to get out.  And of course, in some jurisdictions, we’ve seen the rise of a totally new issue – new to me, in my 20 years as a prosecutor.  When I began, we didn’t have the private probation companies that now work alongside many of our court-authorized probation companies.  And many of these companies will supervise individuals who can’t afford to immediately pay the final amount of their fines and fees.  You might say, a laudable goal: private industry stepping in to relieve a burden on a challenged government agency.  But what happens is, those who can’t pay those fees and fines get charged additional probation fees on top of them.  Only the people who pay are put on this type of probation.  And people who can afford to pay walk out of court without any supervision.  That is not probation; that’s Wal-Mart: money talks and people walk?  That is not our criminal justice system.  It’s not the one we wrote over 200 years ago.  It’s not the one that we fought for in the years since then.  It’s not the one that those of us who work in the system today intend to see go forward.  Now, of course we still have, even after Gideon vs. Wainwright, a crisis in indigent defense.  It was strikingly sad that on the 50th anniversary of Gideon, we were talking about cuts to legal aid services, we were talking about cuts to essential services at both the federal and state levels that would have meant more people of poverty did not have the ability to have their essential rights vindicated. 

Now when you look at all this together, and I know this is what you all will be doing today, what we are seeing in this country amounts to nothing less than the criminalization of poverty – of poverty; not of actions, not of deeds, but of a condition that is not of peoples’ making.  This is not the criminal justice system in which those of us who are working for fairness, and for equality, are going to be pursuing.  This is not where we are leading today.  Because the consequences of the criminalization of poverty are not only harmful, but they are so far-reaching, they affect families beyond the individual lives; an individual’s ability to support their family, eaten away by the deadly fines and fees from minor infractions – and more than that, more than the economic issues, more than the” inconvenience” that some might term this, what this does is it contributes to a fundamental erosion of a faith in our government.  A fundamental sense of disbelief that government is there to serve people; when people see government, in many, many ways and forms, as simply a means of extracting money and pressing down on their necks.  And we have all seen the results of this mistrust.  We’ve seen how it has moved beyond these issues and affected our communities across the country and citizens’ trust and faith – not only in law enforcement – but in all of us and in government writ large. 

Ms. Jarrett noted, the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report, which came out earlier this year, I’m tremendously proud of the work that was done by our Civil Rights Division, both on that investigation and that report.  And people were looking of course, for a review of policing practices, but what that report did – because what was so obvious, when we went there and looked at what was occurring in Ferguson, and sadly in other towns – is that there were shameful and unacceptable municipal court and law enforcement practices that together worked to turn the justice system into a for-profit enterprise at the expense of public safety.  So that the mistrust, and in fact the pain, that we saw in Ferguson went far beyond the single tragic incident of Mr. [Michael] Brown’s death and was showcasing the disconnection and the pain people felt at their lack of connection to their city overall.  And as we now know, these methods and procedures really caused catastrophic damage to the citizens’ trust in their public officials, and without that trust, without that credibility, those of us in government have no capital to rely upon when we need to make change, when we need to move procedures and move policies and ask people to trust us and work with us as we do so.  That’s the damage in that.  It goes so far beyond just those immediate incidents.  In an example strikingly similar to what Ms. Jarrett talked about, one Ferguson resident received two traffic tickets – just two – in the year 2007.  They totaled $152.  Not an insignificant amount of money.  But by the time our report was issued, earlier this year, in 2015, she had paid the city of Ferguson $550.  She paid the city of Ferguson $550 in fines and fees, quite a profit, quite a markup.  Was she buying furniture – what is going on?  She had been arrested twice for these unpaid tickets, she had spent six days in jail and inexplicably, as of earlier this year – the time the report was issued – the city calculated that she still owed them $541.  From $152 to almost $1000.  We’ve outlawed usury, we’ve outlawed debtors prisoners, we cannot cloak it in the language of fees and fines and make it right.

Now these and countless other experiences cause daily struggles for people across this country and of course they lead to an environment in which these long simmering tensions affect us every day.  Now this is an especially important moment for criminal justice reform as we’ve talked about and I know this is what you all are going to be focusing on today and I am so glad you are here because now is the time that we have to bring focus to this issue.  We are at a critical juncture; we truly have the opportunity in this and so many important issues.  And as so many of us in this room know, these challenges are not new.  Indeed, for many of the Americans that I’ve talked about, who have been living under the yoke of these fees and fines, they’re in fact a fixture of everyday life.  But they are being seen and they are being heard to a degree never seen and heard before.  And while the action to amend the practices like those identified in the Ferguson report and in other municipalities is long overdue.  We now have a growing consensus among all people of political stripes and personal backgrounds that the shortcomings of our justice system are not only poor policy, as many of us who work in it have been saying and seeking change, but they are in desperate need of change.  Now is the time and we have to seize this moment.

Now, we’ve talked about the Ferguson report but the Department of Justice is also determined to be an important contributor to this effort. Our Office of Justice Programs (OJP), led by Karol Mason – who is here today – we’re looking to make funding available to local municipalities to make innovate alternatives to fees and fines and these legal financial obligations that contribute to the cycle of incarceration and poverty.  OJP’s Office of Civil Rights is also evaluating discrimination complaints against several court systems to determine whether their pretrial and bail practices violate federal laws.

Now our Civil Rights Division, writ large, led by Vanita Gupta – who is also here today – and our Access to Justice, led by my classmate Lisa Foster – so glad to see her – have also filed statements of interest where the federal government has a unique voice to lend and role to play in a number of cases already filed in this area.  Including cases about unlawful bail, the right to counsel and the criminalization of homelessness – something we have to address particularly as more and more of our people who are facing mental illness and more and more of our returning veterans fall into this category.  And they also continue to evaluate whether pending lawsuits warrant new statements of interest from the department.  This work is ongoing.  And the Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center will be preparing a report from this convening, from this meeting to outline a national research and policy agenda that will help to advance the agenda about criminal justice reform.  And that’s another reason why I thank all of you for being here today because you need you for this, we can’t do this alone.  So much of this work, as it must, at the state and local levels – where you leave and where you work alongside the people we all serve.

The breadth of the original Gideon decision was its application of the right to counsel to all cases not just the federal/capital level but at the state level as well, where so much procedural justice begins.  The face of justice for so many of our citizens is not in the federal court house, where I live and work, but it’s at the Parking Bureau, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the county court house – that face of justice must be open in fair at every door and at every window.  Whether you’re a state legislature with a say in the use of fines and fees as a source of revenue, whether you’re a judge who sets bail and passes sentences – we’re not encouraging you to abdicate any responsibility in terms of safety or making sure that people who should not be on streets are – you may be a court administrator who collects fines and fee, you also may be a thought leader who studies crime and poverty; you may also be an advocate who stands beside those most directly affected  - you’re making a real difference.  Please know that.  And you are indispensable to bringing all of these efforts to completion.  To ensuring that in the United States there is indeed no price tag on justice.

And I commit to you, as the Attorney General that this Department of Justice and this entire administration will continue to stand with you and to do everything in our power to further this important mission.  Now, let me end, as I began.  What is the price of justice?  But let me now point out the fundamental error in the question I posed, that it is a question at all.  The fundamental error of the question I posed, and the one sadly so many of us start with and  of the policies that seek to answer that question with a specific amount is in thinking of justice as a commodity that can be quantified rather than a right inherent to all who stand under the sheltering arm of our constitution.  Because to reduce this essential ideal, this precious ideal, that I know means as much to me as it does to you, to try and reduce this ideal to mere coin is an effort not only doomed to fail but ultimately it is an effort that cheapens us all.

Now, as we know, Gideon won his case before the Supreme Court.  He won a new trial and he was acquitted and released and he went on to live several years thereafter.  But he kept in touch with his attorney Abe Fortas, in the pre Supreme Court days and when he died, his headstone is inscribed with a line from a letter that he wrote to him.  And the inscription reads “Each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.”  Now let this be not only the issue for the day, let it be the improvement of our era.

So I want to thank all of you who’ve come today, to work on these important issues, to continue the work and the thoughts of you who have begun at the local level to come together, to talk together, to learn from each other, to listen to each other and to commit again to the issue of this day and the improvement of our era.  Thank you so much for your time this morning.

Access to Justice
Updated September 28, 2016