Skip to main content

Remarks by Attorney General Eric Holder at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT 25th Anniversary Reception Dinner


Baltimore, MD
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Patrick [McCarthy], for those kind words; for your outstanding leadership as president of this organization; for your exceptional work at the Foundation over the past two decades; and for the lifetime of service you have devoted to improving the lives of our nation’s children.

It’s an honor to share the stage with you tonight.  And it’s a great privilege to be here in Baltimore – among so many committed leaders and passionate advocates – as we explore ways to open new avenues of opportunity for all of our young people; as we seek to protect them from exploitation and abuse; and as we strive to create the more just, fair, and equal society that every American deserves.

For more than 60 years – since this organization made its very first investment in America’s future by supporting a Seattle-area children’s camp, in 1948 – the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been a champion for disadvantaged young people from coast to coast.  You’ve fought to break down barriers, to strengthen families, and to inform national efforts to improve juvenile justice.  And particularly over the last quarter century – through the groundbreaking Kids Count initiative we celebrate tonight – you have paved the way for local advocates, state leaders, and national policymakers to come together, acquire new tools, and invest in cutting-edge strategies that can lead to better outcomes – and foster lasting progress.

As we speak, through your extraordinarily active and generous grant-making – to worthy organizations in all 50 states – you’re providing leaders on the ground with vital opportunities to learn, to grow, and to make positive changes in the communities they know so well and serve so faithfully.  This is bold, important, and in many cases life-changing work.  But you are far from alone in this fight.

For my colleagues and me – at every office and agency within the United States Department of Justice – this effort has been a top priority over the last six years.  We have been proud to stand alongside, and work closely with, you and your partners around the country to make the difference that America’s young people deserve.  And we understand, like everyone in this crowd, that this isn’t an abstract discussion.  The stakes are real – and they could hardly be higher.

We’ve seen, over the years, that – in far too many places – young people remain trapped in a destructive cycle of poverty, incarceration, and crime; a cycle that destroys lives and diverts promising futures each and every day.  The Justice Department has found that a majority of America’s kids – more than 60 percent of them, in fact – have been exposed to crime, abuse, or violence, as victims or as witnesses, at some point in their young lives.

We’ve also come to recognize that, in far too many neighborhoods, children of all ages – and particularly children of color – walk a well-worn path from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse.  According to data collected by the Department of Education, last year, students of color were subjected to suspensions and expulsions at a rate three times higher than their white peers.  They were far more likely to face referral to law enforcement, or even arrest.  And race was not the only factor that set certain groups apart for disproportionate school discipline – because the same study also found that three quarters of students who faced disciplinary physical restraint were classified as students with disabilities.

Each of us is here tonight because we understand that these statistics represent a status quo that is as shocking as it is unacceptable.  From heightened exposure to violence, to reduced economic opportunities, to the pernicious – and perpetual – “school-to-prison pipeline,” at this moment, millions of American kids face urgent and growing threats.

As this foundation has made clear throughout its history, we cannot close our eyes to these iniquities.  We cannot deny their effects.  And it is incumbent upon every one of us – here and now – to both acknowledge and confront the tragic realities experienced by so many of our young people – and especially those who live in grinding poverty each and every day.

Fortunately, thanks to the leadership of this extraordinary organization, initiatives like Kids Count, and the strong partnerships you’ve forged with hundreds of government agencies and nonprofit groups, tonight – together – we are fighting back more aggressively, and working more collaboratively, than ever before.

Over the years, the Justice Department has been proud to count the Annie E. Casey Foundation as a strong ally in this work.  Thanks to a National Academy of Sciences report that this foundation supported, we know it’s long past time that we adopt a developmentally-informed approach to reforming key juvenile justice policies.  And through the department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, we’re working closely with you – under programs like the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI – to harness rigorous research and ensure that all youth who are involved in the juvenile justice system have opportunities to develop into healthy, productive adults.

Going forward, as a result of the nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in funding we’ve jointly marshaled – to keep advancing the work of the JDAI – we’ll keep building upon juvenile justice reform efforts that are underway in seven targeted states and a tribal pilot site.

There’s no question that this work holds tremendous promise.  But if we hope to continue – let alone expand upon – the progress we’re making possible, we’ll need to broaden both our focus and our impact.  We’ll need to grow our ranks of partners – and enlist additional philanthropies, business leaders, mayors, law enforcement officers, educators, and young people – to take these efforts to a new level.  And we’ll need to provide both a unifying vision and a robust national framework to drive, and to amplify, the work of local leaders.

With these goals in mind, this past February, President Obama announced a sweeping new initiative known as My Brother’s Keeper, which is bringing diverse groups of stakeholders together to address opportunity gaps and tear down barriers that too often prevent young people, including boys and young men of color, from realizing their full potential.

Since then, agencies across the government – including the Justice Department – have partnered with business, non-profit, faith, community, and philanthropic partners – including the Annie E. Casey Foundation – to help build ladders of opportunity for all young people.

On Saturday night, the President announced a major expansion of this effort – known as the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge – which officially launched this week, and will encourage cities, counties, and tribal nations to implement coherent “cradle to college and career” strategies to improve life outcomes for all youth, including young people of color.

Already, more than 135 mayors, county officials, and tribal leaders have accepted this national call-to-action.  And within the next 180 days, they will launch specific action plans for improving the chances that young people can remain on the right path, get educated, find gainful employment, and stay safe from violent crime.

This innovative challenge – like the My Brother’s Keeper initiative as a whole – are both complementing and augmenting ongoing efforts like the Justice Department’s Smart on Crime initiative, which is making criminal justice policies both more effective and more efficient across the board.  And I can report tonight that we stand poised to take this comprehensive work to a new level – by extending these efforts to promote system-wide juvenile justice reform.

On Friday, I announced a new Smart on Juvenile Justice initiative that will bolster the Justice Department’s work to end disparities and improve the juvenile justice system.  Under this brand-new program, three states – Georgia, Hawaii, and Kentucky – will be working with the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project to provide diversion alternatives, community-based options, and other reforms aimed at reducing recidivism, decreasing correctional spending, and improving public safety.  OJJDP is awarding funding to the Crime and Justice Institute to provide training and technical assistance that will help these three states implement important policy changes.

We are also awarding more than $1 million to the W. Haywood Burns Institute and the Development Services Group to reduce racial and ethnic disparities throughout the system.  And with a third set of Smart on Juvenile Justice awards, we are supporting comprehensive training for juvenile justice prosecutors – to acquaint them with the latest information in forensic science, adolescent development, the neurosciences, and the prosecution of sexual assault cases.

Now, these are important new steps that underscore our commitment to the future of our children – and the goals of My Brother’s Keeper.  But they are only the beginning.  And this evening, I am proud to announce, with my esteemed colleague, Karol Mason, the Assistant Attorney General for our Office of Justice Programs, that we are taking additional actions to build on the successes we’ve seen in reducing youth violence and victimization – and the locally-driven work that so many of you are making possible – starting right here in Baltimore.

Four years ago, at President Obama’s direction, we launched a network of community stakeholders and federal agencies known as the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention.  Two years ago, we expanded this Forum to a total of ten cities, where leaders are currently hard at work building multidisciplinary approaches, bringing together diverse groups of allies – and applying innovative, data-driven strategies for contending with local challenges.

In each of our ten cities, these efforts are showing real promise – improving lives and winning praise from experts as well as local residents.  And that’s why – tonight – I am announcing that we will expand this National Forum to five additional cities: Long Beach, California; Cleveland, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; Seattle, Washington; and of course Baltimore, Maryland.

In the days ahead, each city will receive an initial set of funds – in the form of planning grants – to begin the work that has been so successful in the original Forum cities.  And as this work takes hold, each will be eligible for additional support – once they develop sound plans for coordinating resources, engaging in community outreach, and involving new stakeholders.

Beyond this important program, I am also pleased to announce that, through our National Institute of Justice, the department will provide $63 million in new funding to 24 research projects – involving school districts and research organizations – to collect data, convene stakeholders, and develop best practices for improving school safety.  This funding is being awarded as part of the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative – a large-scale, multi-agency research effort to build practical, and scientifically-sound, knowledge about effective ways to increase school safety nationwide.  This initiative has grown out of the President and Vice President’s gun violence reduction package, through which we’ve taken commonsense steps to keep guns out of potentially dangerous hands.  It will enable us to examine and implement additional actions to make schools safer.  And it will yield new insights and evidence about what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to school discipline, violence and bullying reduction, school resource officers, mental health professionals, and justice interventions like youth courts.

Together with landmark efforts like our Defending Childhood Initiative and our Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, these programs reaffirm the Justice Department’s determination to intervene in the lives of underserved youth; to strengthen our juvenile justice system; and to keep young people on the right path and out of our prisons and jails.

This work is a testament to our broad-based interest in the positive growth and development of the young men and women who will become the leaders of tomorrow.  And these historic initiatives and programs – from the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge to Smart on Juvenile Justice; from Juvenile Detention Alternatives to the National Forum – are critical markers of our dedication to instituting smart, evidence-based policies that create stronger communities, better outcomes, and brighter futures.

As we’re proving tonight, this commitment is bigger than any single organization or agency, no matter how focused our mandate or how effective our work.  This effort is broader than any single neighborhood, community, city, or state – spanning jurisdictions, borders, and boundaries from coast to coast.  And thanks to the partnerships we’ve codified and the pledges we’ve made in recent years, this dedication has become institutional.  It constitutes a priority not just for this foundation, and for the department I am honored to lead, but for the entire nation – and for the Obama Administration at the highest levels.  And it will outlast each and every one of us – no matter who leads the Annie E. Casey Foundation, sits in the White House, or serves as Attorney General of the United States.

As you know, my time in public service will soon be drawing to a close.  But these efforts will only grow stronger.  And as I made clear last week, although I will be leaving the Justice Department in the coming months, I will never leave this work or this cause.

As an attorney and advocate – and, more importantly, as the father of three wonderful kids – I have always regarded the protection of our young people not only as a professional responsibility, but as a personal calling.  And in the years ahead, I intend to continue to seek ways, both formal and informal, to keep driving these efforts forward – because I firmly believe, and have always believed, that our nation’s future will be defined, and its progress determined, by the doors we open and the support we provide to America’s young people.

Thanks to the sweeping work that this Administration is leading – and the vital direction you all have provided for over six decades – it’s clear, as we come together this evening, that there is much to celebrate.  But it’s equally clear that this progress is less a stopping point than a signifier of sustained and serious commitment.  And that’s why, although we gather to mark the first 25 years of Kids Count, we do so tonight with our eyes and our attention firmly fixed on the next 25 years: on the work that’s left to do; on communities we have not yet reached; and on generations of striving, hardworking young people still in need of our assistance.

I want to thank you all, once again, for your unwavering commitment to this work – and your unyielding faith in the promise of every young woman and young man who dares to aim high, work hard, and reach for the brighter future that he or she deserves.  It has been the honor of my professional life to stand with you in this effort, alongside the dedicated public servants of the U.S. Department of Justice.  I have been proud to count you as colleagues and partners.  And I look forward to all that we will surely achieve together in the months and years ahead.

Thank you.

Updated August 18, 2015