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Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein Delivers Remarks at the 50 State Summit on Public Safety


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Alan, for that kind introduction.  It is a privilege to be here this morning.

I want to thank the Council of State Governments and the Association of State Correctional Administrators for putting on this program.  I understand that this summit is the first of its kind. We are joined by leaders from the criminal justice systems of all 50 states. The audience includes lawmakers, corrections administrators, law enforcement officials, and behavioral health professionals.

I commend you attending this summit and for focusing on public safety in your state.  Together, we can make a difference. We can reduce crime and violence, and maintain the rule of law. 

The term “rule of law” refers to the principle that the United States is governed by law and not arbitrary decisions of government officials.

Rule of law systems are characterized by consistency and predictability. They allow people to plan their lives understanding in advance what rules will govern them.

But the rule of law is not just about words on paper. Any nation can write a good Constitution and adopt reasonable laws. The question is whether people will faithfully implement them.

The rule of law depends upon the character of the people who enforce the law.

It is about all of you.

Abraham Lincoln said that we should: “Let reverence for the laws … be breathed by every American mother … let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs — let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice…. [I]n short, let it become the political religion of the nation.”

The goal is to enshrine reverence for the rule of law in the hearts of the people, and not just in the words of the law books.

Robert Bolt considered the rule of law in his brilliant play about Sir Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons. More defends the rule of law in an argument with his son-in-law, William Roper. Roper is angry that More would respect the rule of law even for the Devil himself.

Roper insists that he would cut down every law if it were necessary, in order to destroy the Devil.

More replies, “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast … and if you cut them down … and you're just the man to do it … d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.”

The moral is that we are all responsible for maintaining the rule of law.

My office is in the Justice Department’s Robert F. Kennedy Building, better known as Main Justice. As I walk the stately hallways of the Main Justice Building, I am reminded that law enforcement heroes like Attorney General Robert Jackson once worked in the building. He confronted the challenges of his era in the same rooms where Attorney General Sessions and I deal with the issues of our time.  His portrait hangs proudly in my conference room. It is a source of comfort and inspiration.

In 1940, Attorney General Jackson delivered a speech to the Federal-State Conference on Law Enforcement Problems of National Defense. His audience was a lot like you — federal, state, and local law enforcement officers and other government officials.  The goal was to facilitate cooperation between federal agents and their state and local counterparts.   

In words that are still relevant today, Jackson said that the public “looks to the state and federal governments to work together in cooperation.”  He emphasized that law enforcement officers at all levels share a “grave responsibility,” and he expressed his hope that “this meeting will result in the establishment of some machinery for the interchange of ideas and the general coordination of efforts in the future.”

Attorney General Jackson would be pleased to see so many local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, policymakers, and behavioral health officials exchange ideas, coordinate strategies, and share resources.  

As Deputy Attorney General, I am involved in establishing and implementing the Department’s priorities and policies.  The Department of Justice has more than 115,000 employees scattered throughout the world.  But it has a singular mission:  protecting the American people.

Combating terrorism remains the Department’s top priority.  As the recent attack in New York made clear, evildoers who are determined to disrupt our way of life continue to threaten us.  National security is a critical part of our work. We must remain vigilant in our efforts to identify terrorists and disrupt them.    

Violent crime also occupies a lot of our time, because our nation has experienced a significant increase in violent crime.  The nationwide violent crime rate rose by 3.4 percent in 2016 and 3.3 percent in 2015.  Those increases each represented the largest single-year spikes in violent crime since 1991. 

Most troubling, the national murder rate increased by 20 percent over the last two years.  Some of our major cities experienced even larger increases.  President Trump and Attorney General Sessions have directed the Department to reverse that trend.      

To achieve that goal, we created the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.  The Task Force made a series of recommendations to the Attorney General, and the Department is working to implement them. 

The Attorney General recently announced a reinvigorated Project Safe Neighborhoods program.  The PSN violence reduction initiative was first launched in 2001.  It encourages federal law enforcement officials to work with their state and local counterparts to take violent offenders off the streets. 

The program is built around the realization that most of the work to reduce violent crime is done by you, on the front lines of state and local law enforcement.

When I served as the United States Attorney for Maryland, I learned firsthand that inter-agency partnerships are essential to reducing crime.  Violent gangs, drug cartels, and other dangerous criminals are unconcerned with jurisdictional boundaries.  We cannot allow such boundaries to prevent us from ensuring that justice is done and that our streets our safe.

I know from my time as the U.S. Attorney in Maryland that PSN works.  And, my personal experience is backed up by data showing that PSN reduced violent crime in the communities where it was effectively implemented.  The revamped PSN program will save lives.           

We are also facing the challenges resulting from the unprecedented opioid crisis.  The news is full of heartbreaking stories of parents burying their teenage children, of Neonatal Intensive Care Units overflowing with opioid-addicted babies, of EMS workers racing from one drug overdose to another, and of medical examiners running short of resources to handle the somber extra business.     

The overdose numbers are astounding.  In 1990, there were 8,000 deaths. The rate was relatively constant as a proportion of the American population for decades.  Then it increased approximately 700 percent over the next 26 years. 

In 2016, more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses.  On average, that means during this speech – another American will have died from a drug overdose.  This is unacceptable. 

Opioids are driving this increase in overdose deaths.  The opioid problem began several years ago when doctors — aided by pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies — began overprescribing and diverting powerful prescription opioids.  

In some instances, the doctors were untrained and unaware of the addictive nature of the drugs they were prescribing.  In other instances, the doctors were little more than drug dealers with advanced degrees. They operated “pill mills” where medical care was nonexistent, cash was king, and prescription opioids flowed freely.  

Our newest challenge is fentanyl, a synthetic drug produced primarily in China. It is up to 50 times more potent than heroin.  It is so powerful that a quantity equal to a few grains of table salt can kill a person.  

Chinese chemists try to stay a step ahead of law enforcement by making chemical analogues of fentanyl, such as carfentanil. It is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. In fact, carfentanil is intended as an elephant tranquilizer. It is manufactured in Chinese laboratories, shipped to the United States or Mexico, mixed with heroin, and then sold to addicts who are often unaware of what they are ingesting. Just last week, the DEA announced its intent to emergency schedule these fentanyl analogues.  This is a major step in cracking down on these deadly drugs.  

The President recently declared that the opioid crisis a “public health emergency.”  The declaration will redirect federal resources to help fund treatment efforts. 

At the Department of Justice, we use every tool at our disposal to stop the rise in violence and to end the drug crisis. 

I know that some of you work to finding solutions to crime apart from prosecution and incarceration.  That is a worthy goal.

Our goal is not to fill prisons. It is to prevent crime. 

Prevention and reentry efforts play an important part in reducing crime.  Many programs within the Bureau of Prisons, Community Oriented Policing Services, Office of Justice Programs, and Office of Violence Against Women are dedicated to those goals.  By supporting those efforts, the Department seeks to keep people from entering the criminal justice system. 

The Second Chance Act program, which is administered by the Department of Justice, helps individuals returning from prison or jail successfully reintegrate into the community.  It provides grants to help state, local, and tribal corrections and public safety agencies implement and improve a variety of reentry services including housing, educational and employment assistance, mentoring relationships, mental health assistance, substance abuse treatment, and family-support services.

The Department of Justice recognizes the value of evidence-based reentry programs as a component of successful violent crime reduction strategies and remains committed to the goals of helping returning inmates as they reenter society.

When I started my first supervisory job in 2001, one of the most popular management books was “Who Moved My Cheese?”  If you are about my age, you probably are familiar with it.  It is a fable about how to manage change.

The story involves two men who live in a maze.  There is a place in the maze where they can always find cheese, which represents success.

One day, the cheese stops showing up in the usual spot.  In the face of this new challenge, one of the men decides to adapt and venture through the maze looking for more cheese.  The other man sticks with his old routine and refuses to change.

 The adaptable man realizes that the cheese is always moving.  He constantly monitors his cheese supply and explores the maze to prevent complacency from setting in.

The complacent man goes hungry.

That simple lesson is a reminder about the need to evolve to meet changing circumstances.

If crime is falling in your jurisdiction, I offer my congratulations. Keep right on doing what you are doing. But if crime is rising, now is the time to change to a strategy that works.

I want to conclude by quoting John Adams, who famously said that “[f]acts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

The facts concerning violent crime and drug overdoses are very stubborn.  I hope that the collaboration and exchange of ideas at this Summit will help lead to a new set of facts.

I know that each of us can make a difference. And together, we can make a big difference.

We will not be satisfied until the evidence shows that our nation is safer, violent crime is lower, and the drug overdose epidemic recedes.

Thank you for allowing me to join you this morning. I would be happy to answer your questions.

Updated December 11, 2017