Thank you, Jim [Garland], for those kind words – and for your steadfast friendship over the many years we’ve known one another. It’s a pleasure to share the stage with you this evening. It’s a great privilege to stand with Kyra Phillips, Professor [Angela] Davis, and so many leaders of the Southern Center for Human Rights – including Chairperson [Maureen] Del Duca, President [Stephen] Bright, Executive Director [Sara] Totonchi, and your entire Board of Directors and staff. Most of all, it’s a tremendous honor to join this crowd of jurists and Justice Department leaders – including Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, her colleagues from the Civil Rights Division, and our outstanding Solicitor General, Don Verrilli – in paying tribute to the distinguished award recipients that this organization has chosen to recognize here at your 18th Annual Frederick Douglass Awards Dinner.
Debo Adegbile is an extraordinarily dedicated, passionate, and talented lawyer who has devoted his career to the pursuit of equal justice – and the fundamental ideal that every accused individual has a constitutional right to counsel. His courage and conviction – even in the face of outrageous and unwarranted political attacks that either misunderstood or intentionally misrepresented a sterling record of achievement – have truly set him apart from his peers. And his actions have marked him as an exceptional leader in his profession – and a worthy recipient of this prestigious award.
Congressman John Lewis is a legend in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, a lifelong champion of human rights, and a hero who has been called “the conscience of the United States Congress.” For decades, his leadership has been instrumental in securing and expanding protections for individuals and communities that are too often overlooked and too often underserved. He has been, and will always be, a guiding light to those who strive to advance the cause of justice. And I can think of no one more deserving of the recognition we are about to bestow.
Of course, tonight’s celebration is merely the latest forum that this organization has convened in order to highlight the critical work that these and other exemplary leaders are making possible – and to shine a light on the difficulties and deficiencies that far too many Americans face each and every day. Since its founding – nearly four decades ago – the Southern Center for Human Rights has provided indispensable national direction and on-the-ground advocacy for individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system. In your daily efforts, you’re calling attention to unjust and ineffective policies and practices that too frequently serve to perpetuate, rather than alleviate, cycles of poverty, crime, and incarceration. And – especially in recent years – this work is not only inspiring, but helping to bring about, real and significant changes that are both badly-needed and long overdue.
Over the years, we’ve seen that over-incarceration doesn’t just crush individual opportunity. At a more fundamental level, it challenges our nation’s commitment to our highest ideals. And it threatens to undermine our pursuit of equal justice for all.
Fortunately, we come together this evening at a pivotal moment – when sweeping criminal justice reforms, and an emerging national consensus, are bringing about nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way our country addresses issues of crime and incarceration, particularly with respect to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.
For the first time in many decades, it’s clear that we’re on the right track, and poised to realize dramatic reductions in criminal activity and incarceration. In fact, the rate of violent crime that was reported to the FBI in 2012 was about half the rate reported in 1993. This rate has declined by more than 11 percent just since President Obama took office. And the overall incarceration rate has gone down by more than 8 percent over the same brief period.
This marks the very first time that these two critical markers have declined together in more than 40 years. And the Justice Department’s current projections suggest that the federal prison population will continue to go down in the years ahead. As a result of the commonsense, evidence-based changes that my colleagues and I have implemented – under the landmark “Smart on Crime” initiative I launched last year – I’m hopeful that we’re witnessing the beginning of a trend that will only accelerate as new policies and initiatives fully take hold.
Our Smart on Crime approach is predicated on the notion that the criminal justice system must be continually improved – and strengthened – by the most effective and efficient strategies available. That’s why we’re increasing our focus on proven diversion and reentry programs – like drug courts, veterans’ courts, and job training initiatives – that can help keep people out of prison in appropriate cases, and enable those who have served their time to rejoin their communities as productive citizens. It’s why we are closely examining the shameful racial and ethnic disparities that too often plague the criminal justice process – and working to mitigate any unwarranted inequities. And it’s why I have mandated a significant change to the Justice Department’s charging policies – so that sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes will be determined based on the facts, the law, and the conduct at issue in each individual case and not on a one size fits all mandate from Washington.
Of course, even as we press for smart reforms to reduce our nation’s overreliance on incarceration, we cannot ignore the fact that just over two million people are currently behind bars – and must be held in humane and constitutional conditions. To that end, the Civil Rights Division is hard at work across the nation to address some of the harshest conditions in America’s prisons and jails. For example, in Pennsylvania, we are working with the state to ensure that persons with mental illness and intellectual disabilities are not subjected to the harsh effects of extreme isolation. In Alabama and Kansas, we are striving to make certain that incarcerated women are protected from rampant sexual assault by guards. And in New Orleans, as part of a comprehensive jail reform case addressing many other issues, we are seeking to safeguard and to educate juveniles who are confined to adult jails.
The department has also undertaken cases in Tennessee, Mississippi and Missouri to ensure that the due process rights of young people are respected in juvenile justice proceedings; that children have the meaningful assistance of counsel; and that African-American, Hispanic, and other children of color are not disproportionately punished. And we are fighting, in jurisdictions across the nation – through work of the Civil Rights Division and the Access to Justice Initiative I launched in 2010 – to bolster public defense systems, to expand access to counsel, and to ensure that indigent defense systems have adequate controls to provide meaningful representation to every client.
All of these activities and developments hold tremendous promise. All of this work is making a meaningful, measurable difference in the lives, and communities, of countless people across this country. And as our national dialogue continues to unfold, it’s becoming increasingly clear that criminal justice reform is an idea whose time has finally come.
Equal justice is not a Democratic value or a Republican value. It’s an American value – and a solemn pursuit – that speaks to the ideals that have always defined this great country. It goes to the very heart of who we are, and who we aspire to be, as a people. And it will always drive leaders of principle from across the political spectrum – including those in this room and others throughout the nation – to keep moving us forward along the path to transformative justice.
After all, as one of America’s foremost champions for justice – and the namesake of tonight’s awards, the great Frederick Douglass – once said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” He denounced those who, in his words, want “rain without thunder and lightning.” And he reminded everyone who would walk the trail that he and so many others have blazed that “[t]his struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle,” because “[p]ower concedes nothing without a demand.”
This evening, we demand – with one voice – that the power of our criminal justice system be brought to bear in ways that are both equitable and appropriate: to deter and punish crime, to rehabilitate those who work hard to get their lives on track, and to protect the safety of everyone in this country. We reaffirm our commitment, as a nation, to continuing this struggle – for equality, for opportunity, and for justice. And we pledge that we will never stop working for reform and marching for positive change – though our journey may be long, and our path uncertain, as it stretches out before us.
In the months and years to come, as we continue this work – and as my own path takes me in a new direction – I want you to know that I will always be both proud, and humbled, to count you as allies in this fight. Our next Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, is an outstanding leader who will help take these efforts to a new level. I will keep seeking ways to contribute to the work that lies ahead. And our nation will always rely on the Southern Center for Human Rights to help those in need, to call for the changes we seek, and – ultimately – to keep pushing us forward.
I’d like to thank you, once again, for all that you do and the support you have given me these past six years. I congratulate the recipients of the 18th Annual Frederick Douglass Awards. And I look forward to everything that we must – and surely will – achieve together in the months and years to come.