Thank you, Matt. I am grateful to you and Darlene for your leadership and your outstanding support of crime victims throughout the country.
I also want to thank the staff of the Office for Victims of Crime for their hard work advancing the cause of victims’ rights and delivering high-quality services to millions of Americans harmed by crime and violence each year.
I am pleased to join you in honoring recipients of the National Crime Victims’ Service Awards. Attorney General Barr asked me to commend the 13 honorees for their achievements and to thank everyone for attending.
People who have been victimized by serious crimes, either personally or through their relationship with a family member or friend, find that the pain never fully goes away. But so many of you demonstrate resilience by moving forward and drawing on your own painful experiences to bring about something positive for others.
It has been said that living a good life is not about waiting until the storm passes and blue skies return. It is about learning to dance in the rain, and make the best of whatever circumstances confront you.
Not long ago, victims participated in federal prosecutions only if they were called as witnesses. But the victims’ rights movement helped to make significant changes.
Today, supporting victims is an important part of our law enforcement strategy. We do not just prosecute criminals. We need to help victims heal and vindicate their rights. And we must never lose sight of the fact that our primary goal is to create fewer victims in the future. We are in the business of deterring crime. We want less work for police and prosecutors.
After crime began to rise in America in the 1960s, a grassroots movement to support victims gained momentum. As a result, President Reagan appointed a new task force to focus on challenges facing crime victims. That task force produced one of the foundational documents in the history of the victims’ rights field. One of the leaders of that effort is here with us today: Edwin Meese III, who served first as Counselor to President Reagan and then as the 75th Attorney General of the United States.
After he took office as Attorney General in 1985, Ed Meese promised that the Department of Justice would “pursue our agenda within the context of our written Constitution of limited yet energetic powers. Our guide in every case will be the sanctity of the rule of law and the proper limits of governmental power.”
I am grateful that General Meese is here today. He visited the Department of Justice last year to speak with our appointees. Drawing on personal experience, he reminded us that history values energetic accomplishments and disregards idle criticisms. A portrait of Ed Meese enjoys pride of place in the Attorney General’s conference room. Towering above our meetings, it serves as a reminder of the legacy we inherited, an inspiration to carry it forward, and an admonition that the right path is not always the easy path.
President Reagan’s 1982 Task Force found that victims of crime were generally ignored by the system and left to fend for themselves. “When victims come forward,” the task force members wrote, “they find little protection. They learn that somewhere along the way the system has lost track of the simple truth that it is supposed to be fair and to protect those who obey the law while punishing those who break it. Somewhere along the way, the system began to serve lawyers and judges and defendants, treating the victim with institutionalized disinterest.”
The Task Force made 68 specific recommendations. The goal was to establish the principle that regardless of where a case is prosecuted, as stated in the final report, “The victim in every criminal prosecution shall have the right to be present and to be heard at all critical stages of judicial proceedings.” The report resulted in the creation of the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime and the passage of the landmark 1984 Victims of Crime Act. That act created a mechanism to fund victim services from fees and fines levied against federal criminal offenders.
Today, our Office for Victims of Crime uses money collected from criminals to support victim compensation programs throughout the country. It funds more than 7,000 local victim assistance programs.
In my home state of Maryland, supporters of crime victims continue to be inspired by the story of Stephanie Roper and her family, who helped to bring about the changes advocated by Ed Meese.
In 1982, Stephanie was a 22-year-old student at Frostburg State College. Stephanie’s car broke down one day while she was driving alone. This was long before cell phones. As Stephanie waited for help on the side of the road, two men approached her and promised to take her to her friend’s house. Instead, they abducted Stephanie, then they tortured and murdered her.
Stephanie’s parents, Roberta and Vincent, were not allowed to attend the trial because there was a chance they would be called as witnesses. Roberta was scheduled to testify at the sentencing hearing, but the court upheld an objection from the defense attorney, who argued that any testimony about the impact of the murder on victims was “irrelevant.” Meanwhile, a parade of witnesses testified on behalf of the defendants.
The Ropers went on to become powerful voices in the victims’ rights movement, helping to lead the revolution in Maryland, and across the nation.
The federal government’s commitment to victims – and to the safety of every American – has never been stronger than it is today. We understand that effective law enforcement is essential to reducing crime, and effective law enforcement requires coordination, and it requires political support.
Violent crime rates fell in the early 1990s and declined for more than two decades. Some people started to take it for granted. Maybe they started to believe that progress was inevitable.
So they were surprised when the downward trend suddenly reversed in 2014. From 2014 to 2016, nationwide violent crime increased by seven percent, and murders spiked by 21 percent. There was an 11 percent increase in the murder rate in 2015 alone — the largest annual increase since 1968.
The upward trend was especially pronounced in big cities. In 2016, the murder rate rose in 22 of the 34 largest cities.
Drug abuse also soared, and drug overdose death rates skyrocketed to record numbers. Meanwhile, federal agencies prosecuted fewer violent criminals and drug dealers, and the federal government’s relationships with state and local law enforcement agencies deteriorated.
President Trump recognizes that protecting public safety is a primary duty of government. The preamble to the Constitution explains that its primary goals include to “establish justice” and “insure domestic tranquility.” That is because the founders of our great nation understood that freedom requires law and order. People who live in places where it is not safe to walk the streets of their own neighborhoods cannot enjoy the blessings of liberty. Rampant crime also hampers educational development and economic growth. So the President’s first executive orders to the Department of Justice instructed us to reduce crime and give our crime-fighters the support and tools they need to protect our communities. We are delivering on those commitments.
Last year, federal prosecutors charged the greatest number of violent crime defendants ever. The 2017 total was a record-setting year. And the 2018 total surpassed that record by another 15 percent. Federal law enforcement agencies are doing more than ever before to protect America from violent crime.
The numbers demonstrate how hard we are working, but our goal is not to maximize the number of criminal defendants. Our objective is to minimize the number of crime victims.
There is clear evidence that the strategy is working. Violent crime and homicide rates are falling. Preliminary statistics for 2018 show a significant and sustained reduction in violent crime. We are saving lives by removing dangerous criminals from the streets.
But we are not just arresting and prosecuting criminals. We are also supporting victims. Last year, we made $4.4 billion available to support victim services – the most, by far, in the history of the Crime Victims Fund. Most of that money supports domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, child advocacy programs, homicide support groups, identity theft services, and local victim assistance programs for police, sheriffs, and prosecutors across the nation. We are administering justice to criminals, and we are delivering justice for victims, along with valuable services.
We are fortunate that Attorney General Barr is committed to driving down crime and supporting victims. Under his direction, and with Darlene and her team guiding us, crime victims in our country – and those who serve them – will have the full support of the Department of Justice.
Law enforcement has changed significantly in the 35 years since the passage of the 1984 Victims of Crime Act. Thanks to exceptional men and women like today’s honorees, to the many who came before them, and to other trailblazers who join us today, victims are now central to the administration of justice.
On behalf of the Attorney General and everyone at the Department of Justice, I want to congratulate the award recipients and thank all of you, for demonstrating resilience under challenging conditions, for providing outstanding service to crime victims, and for helping to prevent other people from being victimized in the future.