Skip to main content

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Speaks at the
U.S. Conference of Mayors’
Criminal and Social Justice Standing Committee Meeting


Orlando, FL
United States

Thank you, Vice Chair Mulder, for that kind introduction. I understand Mayor Parker, the Committee Chair, is not able to be with us today as she is in Houston delivering the police academy graduation commencement speech. But I want to thank her for the invitation to speak with you about the ways we can work together to make our communities safer.

The FBI just released statistics showing that violent crime is actually down in most American cities for the fifth year in a row. Much of the credit for this encouraging trend goes to you – our nation’s mayors. In spite of tight budgets and growing responsibilities, you have found a way to use your limited resources to improve public safety. You are to be commended for your leadership and vision.

However, the fact remains that in a number of cities, violent crime rates are unchanged or actually increasing. And we hear from local law enforcement leaders that, even in cities that have seen reductions, the good news is not always shared by every neighborhood.

As mayors representing cities across the country, you see firsthand the devastating impact crime can have on communities and on those who have been personally victimized. Public safety is one of your chief responsibilities. And most crime, we know, is handled by local law enforcement, local prosecutors, and local judges.

At the Department of Justice, we know protecting communities often falls directly on your shoulders. But we are your partners in this effort. We join you in taking a comprehensive and collaborative approach to finding solutions and supporting the many approaches to addressing violent crime in your communities. And we need to make sure we’re coordinating our efforts to make public safety dollars go even further.

This coordinated approach to finding solutions involves more than just enforcement -- we must also direct our efforts to prevent the occurrence of crime in the first place, provide support through intervention programs, and provide individuals reentering our communities from jails and prisons with the tools they need to succeed and turn away from crime. Prevention, intervention and reentry -- by balancing these efforts with enforcement and working more together, we can be cost effective and make our communities safer.

At the Justice Department, this work is a priority. Our comprehensive Anti-Violence Strategy for the U.S. Attorney community focuses not only on enforcement, but also both prevention and reentry. The strategy is designed to encourage federal prosecutors to think holistically about the criminal justice process. And it encourages U.S. Attorneys to work directly with state and local officials to devise place-based anti-violence strategies in communities with the greatest need of anti-violence solutions. We need to ensure that limited enforcement and incarceration resources are targeted at the most violent criminals and those most likely to pose a threat to public safety. It's not about taking a hundred violent offenders off the street, it's about taking the right offenders off the street. By working together to develop the intelligence to find the leaders of the violent gangs, we can make our resources more effective and our communities safer.

As we face the growing challenges of our criminal justice needs, we should be innovative and strategic in trying to find appropriate alternatives to just locking people up. For example, during a trip to South Carolina last year, I learned about Operation Stand (Stop, Take A New Direction), a combined effort of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the North Charleston Police Department, the Charleston County Solicitors Office, and community and local faith-based groups, designed to stop open air drug markets in the community. Using a model pioneered by David Kennedy and used to success in a number of communities, police looked at crime data and identified a particular drug market to be targeted by police. With intelligence gathered through several months of undercover buy operations, they targeted for arrest 23 individuals who had primary culpability for the drug transactions. Eight others, who had lesser culpability, were chosen as candidates for the call in program.

On the same day that the 23 were arrested, the Chief of Police gave the other eight men letters indicating that police knew they had been dealing drugs, asking them to appear at City Hall on a certain date, and promising them that they would not be arrested as long as they showed up. All eight men showed up and during the program listened to the concerns of the community and how their criminal conduct was destroying the neighborhood. They also heard from local residents and community groups offering to help them as well as from prosecutors willing to forego possible charges if these men turned their lives around.

All eight men pledged that night to do just that. While four of the eight returned to crime -- four men have not, are employed, and are on a better course in life. Moreover, the community has seen a remarkable improvement and the open air drug market is gone. Similar operations have been conducted in cities and districts all over the country, such as in High Point, North Carolina and Providence, Rhode Island. You and your police chiefs have helped to lead these efforts, and they exemplify what can happen when we all work together to protect public safety.

We are also working with you to prevent and reduce youth violence. Established at the direction of President Obama and led by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention brings together a network of federal agencies, local communities and local partners to provide technical assistance and training to local officials and their staffs to help develop and implement comprehensive strategic plans to address youth violence. The key is to maximize and leverage existing resources by sharing “what works” between federal, state and local partners.

The Forum is currently active in 6 cities -- Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Salinas, and San Jose. We are expanding to four additional cities through a competitive application process. Interested cities can still apply up to June 25th. We’ve also recently launched an online toolkit that is available on that provides resources on how any locality can create and implement youth violence prevention plans and much more. The goal is to address youth violence comprehensively, balancing the need for robust enforcement strategies with effective prevention, intervention, and reentry techniques to ensure sustainable reductions in violence over time.

In April, we held the second Youth Violence Prevention Summit in Washington, DC. Both your outgoing President, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and your incoming President, Mayor Michael Nutter, spoke at the Summit.  Their participation and valuable contributions to the discussion underscored the depth and importance of the Department’s partnership with mayors.  We look forward to continuing to work with Mayor Nutter on this and other issues during his tenure as President of the Conference of Mayors.

Through the COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) Office, the Department furthers community policing efforts by providing training, technical assistance and grants to state, local and tribal entities. Through the concept of community policing, law enforcement officers are no longer the enemy. They instead develop a relationship with the community by showing an earnest interest in the well being of the people. They become a trusted part of the community and through this, not only learn information that allows them to do their jobs better, but also are in a good position, working with the local residents, to have a chance of preventing it in the first place. Over the last three years, we’ve helped add 7,000 officers to the field. And within a few weeks, COPS will provide another $111 million to hire new officers and retain those in jeopardy of being laid off. This year’s program requires that all new hires be recent military veterans, and I can report that close to 700 veterans will be hired as part of this new requirement. The Department has made a commitment to our veterans and the COPS Hiring Program is the first of what I hope will be many such examples. Overall, this is truly a win for public safety in our cities as more officers will be partnering with communities to prevent crime.

In addition to prevention and intervention, we are also engaged in reducing recidivism and assisting individuals in successfully reentering our communities. Our re-arrest rates after three years are about 65% in the state and local systems and 45% in the federal system. These numbers are too high.

We need to hold accountable those who commit crimes – especially those who offend repeatedly – either through incarceration or through other effective sanctions. At the same time, we know that time spent behind bars adversely affects so many aspects of a former prisoner’s life – such as employment, education and housing opportunities. These things influence a person’s chances of transitioning back into our communities to become a productive, law-abiding citizen, of remaining free from crime, and of becoming a taxpayer who can contribute to our revenue bases. It is critical that we work more closely with you and our state counterparts on this issue.

At the Department, we’ve encouraged U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to work with communities to strengthen reentry strategies and programs – and these programs are starting to show results. U.S. Attorneys’ Offices across the country are initiating outreach events for employers to explain potential opportunities and advantages in hiring the formerly incarcerated and convening Reentry Councils with state and local partners to produce policy suggestions for improving reentry practices across the state.

We’re also bringing together agencies from across the federal government to coordinate reentry efforts and leverage reentry resources. The Attorney General has convened a Federal Interagency Reentry Council representing over 20 federal departments and agencies to help reduce barriers to successful reentry.

Of many accomplishments to date, Reentry Council agencies have made some real inroads in reducing barriers to employment for those with a criminal record. Reentry Council agencies have provided incentives to employers for hiring those with a record and have issued guidance to employers on how to use criminal records as part of the employment process. This guidance discourages employers from denying jobs to applicants with a criminal record if the record does not relate to the job being considered. The federal government and some states are also assessing their regulations and statutes that impose collateral consequences – or “extra punishments” – on previously incarcerated individuals looking for jobs or housing to determine if any should be eliminated.

Some of you may be involved in similar local- and state-level reentry councils, and I encourage you to exercise your leadership in these efforts. Our experience at the federal level is that great things are possible when we work together.

At the state and local level, the Department manages programs under the Second Chance Act, which is the product of a bipartisan commitment in Congress to improving reentry outcomes in our communities. This legislation authorizes federal grants to government agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing, family programming, mentoring, victims support, and other services that can help reduce recidivism. In the first three years of its existence, Congress has appropriated $208 million dollars to Second Chance Act programs and we have made over 370 awards to state, local, tribal governments and private non-profit organizations to help with reentry programs at all levels.

The examples I’ve touched on today demonstrate what can be accomplished when we start working together to address urgent criminal justice issues that affect communities across the country. We need to be innovative and cost-effective in protecting victims of crime and making our communities safer. We’ve made progress – but there’s a lot more that we can and need to do. We can only maximize our impact by leveraging our resources in prevention, intervention and reentry efforts. Let’s focus on what can be accomplished in achieving lasting, long term results.

Updated September 17, 2014