On Justice: 21st century solutions For 21st century challenges

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Eric Holder

[Commentary]

 

REMARKS BY ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER AT THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF ATTORNEYS GENERAL WINTER MEETING

It’s a privilege to take part in this important meeting.  I’d like to thank NAAG’s leadership team and professional staff for bringing us together this week – and inviting me to speak with this distinguished group once again.

Over the past five years, I’ve been privileged to work closely with many of the attorneys general in this room.  Some of us have collaborated on cutting-edge public safety and financial crime initiatives.  Some of us are working together to strengthen our courts and corrections systems – and to find innovative ways to reduce costs and share resources.  And some of us have occasionally found ourselves on opposite sides of an issue.

But despite the differences we’ve encountered from time to time, as attorneys general, we all share the same set of goals.  And we’re striving to fulfill the same responsibilities: by protecting the safety of our fellow citizens and the security of our nation; by safeguarding the civil rights to which everyone in this country is entitled; by preventing and combating violent crime, financial fraud, and threats to the most vulnerable members of society; by improving the effectiveness of our criminal justice systems; and by strengthening collaboration among government, law enforcement, and community partners at every level.

For more than a century, the National Association of Attorneys General has brought America’s leading legal minds together to discuss and advance this work.  Especially in recent years – through sequestration, federal government shutdown, and unprecedented budgetary difficulties – you have shown remarkable leadership in addressing the priorities we share.  And that’s why I’ve made it a priority to participate in this organization’s conferences since I took office just over five years ago: because, at every stage of my career – as a prosecutor, as a judge, as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and as Deputy Attorney General – I’ve seen the profound, positive differences that state leaders like you can make.  And I understand the unique roles you play as the chief law enforcement officers in each of your respective jurisdictions.

In so many ways, you and your colleagues are pioneering our broad-based efforts to recalibrate and reform America’s criminal justice systems – to ensure that 21st century challenges can be met with 21st century solutions.  You’re responding to the same realities that are driving Justice Department reforms at the federal level – by working to break the vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration that traps individuals and weakens communities.  And I’m pleased to note that this commitment has, in many places, given way to principled action – and expanded federal-state partnership.

In recent years, no fewer than 17 states – supported by the Department’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and led by state officials from both parties – have directed significant funding away from prison construction and toward evidence-based programs and services, like supervision and drug treatment, that are proven to reduce recidivism while improving public safety.  Rather than increasing costs, a new report – funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance – projects that these 17 states will save $4.6 billion over a 10-year period.  And although the full impact of our justice reinvestment policies remains to be seen, it’s clear that these efforts are bearing fruit – and showing significant promise across the country. 

From Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Ohio – to Kentucky, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and far beyond – reinvestment and serious reform are improving public safety and saving precious resources.  And I believe that the changes that have led to these remarkable results should be carefully studied – and emulated.

That’s why, last August – in a speech before the American Bar Association in San Francisco – I announced a new “Smart on Crime” initiative that’s allowing the Justice Department to expand on the innovations that so many states have led; to become both smarter and more efficient when battling crime, and the conditions and choices that breed it; and to develop and implement commonsense reforms to the federal criminal justice system.

Under this initiative, we’re ensuring that stringent mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal, drug-related crimes will now be reserved for the most serious criminals.  We’re taking steps to advance proven reentry policies and diversion programs that can serve as alternatives to incarceration in some cases.  And as we look toward the future of this work, we’ll continue to rely on your leadership – and close engagement – to keep advancing the kinds of data-driven public safety solutions that many of you have championed for decades.

This also means making good on our commitment to provide formerly incarcerated people with fair opportunities to rejoin their communities – and become productive, law-abiding citizens – once their involvement with the criminal justice system is at an end.  With the Justice Department’s strong support, the ABA has done important work in this regard, cataloguing tens of thousands of statutes and regulations that impose unwise collateral consequences – related to housing, employment, and voting – that prevent individuals with past convictions from fully reintegrating into society.

As you know, in April 2011, I asked state attorneys general to undertake similar reviews in your own jurisdictions, and – wherever possible – to mitigate or eliminate unnecessary collateral consequences without decreasing public safety.  I’ve made the same request of high-ranking officials across the federal government.  And moving forward, I’ve directed every component of the Justice Department to lead by example on this issue – by considering whether any proposed rule, regulation, or guidance may present unnecessary barriers to successful reentry.

Two weeks ago, at Georgetown University Law Center, I called upon state leaders and other elected officials to take these efforts even further – by passing clear and consistent reforms to restore voting rights to those who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.  I renew this call today – because, like so many other collateral consequences, we’ve seen that the permanent disenfranchisement of those who have paid their debts to society serves no legitimate public safety purpose.  It is purely punitive in nature.  It is counterproductive to our efforts to improve reentry and reduce recidivism.  And it’s well past time that we affirm – as a nation – that the free exercise of our citizens’ most fundamental rights should never be subject to politics, or geography, or the lingering effects of flawed and unjust policies.

I applaud those – like Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky – who have already shown leadership in helping to address this issue.  And I encourage each of you to consider and take up this fight in your home states.

Of course, I recognize that this reform, and the other changes we seek, will not be easy to achieve.  And none of them will take hold overnight.  I know that, as law enforcement leaders, your work has in many ways never been more complex or more challenging.  And particularly in this time of budgetary uncertainty – when unwise, across-the-board cuts have impacted federal, state, and local programs we depend upon – you and your colleagues need all the support, and all the resources, you can get.

That’s why I will never stop fighting to provide the tools and assistance that state and local law enforcement leaders desperately need.  And I’m pleased to report that the bipartisan funding agreement – recently signed into law by President Obama – will restore essential funding for a number of key law enforcement priorities by returning the Justice Department’s appropriations to pre-sequestration levels.

Already, this legislation has enabled us to lift a Department-wide hiring freeze that had been in place for just over three years – so we can begin to bring on additional federal agents, prosecutors, and other staff to bolster ongoing investigative and enforcement efforts across America.  We anticipate that this agreement will also allow us to further invest in the kinds of place-based, intelligence-driven strategies that many of you have proven as effective; to keep offering assistance to states and localities suffering acute crime challenges; and to continue building upon the outstanding work that attorneys general, district attorneys, states’ attorneys, U.S. Attorneys and others have made possible – despite great adversity – in our ongoing fight against crime, against victimization, and for equal rights and equal justice.

This, after all, is the essential duty to which all of us – as attorneys general – have been sworn: not just to win cases, but to see that justice is done.  This is the cause that brings us together in Washington this week – working to confront the threats and seize the opportunities before us.  And this is the extraordinary task with which the American people have entrusted the leaders in this room – and the challenge that all justice professionals are called to address:  not merely to use our legal system to settle disputes and punish those who have done wrong, but to answer the kinds of fundamental questions – about fairness and equality – that have always determined who we are and who we aspire to be, both as a nation and as a people.

These are the questions that drove President Obama and me to decide, in early 2011, that Justice Department attorneys would no longer defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.  As I’ve said before, this decision was not taken lightly.  Our actions were motivated by the strong belief that all measures that distinguish among people based on their sexual orientation must be subjected to a heightened standard of scrutiny – and, therefore, that this measure was unconstitutional discrimination.  Last summer, the Supreme Court issued a historic decision – United States v. Windsor – striking down the federal government’s ban on recognizing gay and lesbian couples who are legally married.  This marked a critical step forward, and a resounding victory for equal treatment and equal protection under the law.

More recently – and partly in response to the Windsor decision – a number of state attorneys general, including those in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Virginia – and, just last week, Oregon – have reached similar determinations after applying heightened scrutiny to laws in their states concerning same-sex marriage.

Any decisions – at any level – not to defend individual laws must be exceedingly rare.  They must be reserved only for exceptional circumstances.  And they must never stem merely from policy or political disagreements – hinging instead on firm constitutional grounds.  But in general, I believe we must be suspicious of legal classifications based solely on sexual orientation.  And we must endeavor – in all of our efforts – to uphold and advance the values that once led our forebears to declare unequivocally that all are created equal and entitled to equal opportunity.

This bedrock principle is immutable.  It is timeless.  And it goes to the very heart of what this country has always stood for – even though, as centuries of advancement in the cause of civil rights have shown, our understanding of it evolves over time.  As I said just after the Administration’s decision on DOMA was announced, America’s most treasured ideals were not put into action or given the full force of law in a single instant.  On the contrary: our ideals are continually advanced as our justice systems – and our Union – are strengthened; and as social science, human experience, legislation, and judicial decisions expand the circle of those who are entitled to the protections and rights enumerated by the Constitution.

As we gather here in Washington today, I believe that our highest ideals – realized in the form of landmark Supreme Court rulings, from Brown to Zablocki, from Romer to Lawrence, from Loving to Windsor – light a clear path forward.  They have impelled us, in some instances, to extraordinary action.  And the progress we’ve seen has been consistent with the finest traditions of our legal system, the central tenets of our Constitution, and the “fundamental truth” that, as President Obama once said, “when all Americans are treated as equal . . . we are all more free.”

As we come together this week to renew our commitment to the work we share, to steel our resolve to combat crime – and to pledge our continued fidelity to the values that guide us, and the Constitution we’ve sworn to uphold – we must strive to move our country forward.  We must keep fighting against violence, safeguarding civil rights, and working to bring our justice system in line with our highest ideals.  We must keep refusing to accept a status quo that falls short of that which our Constitution demands – and the American people deserve.  And we must keep standing up and speaking out – no matter the challenges we face – to eradicate victimization and end injustice in all its forms.

This won’t always be easy – and, occasionally, but inevitably, our tactical paths will diverge.  But as long as we are dedicated to working in common cause, determined to disagree with mutual respect, and devoted to our shared pursuit of a more just and more perfect Union – I am confident in where our collective efforts, and your steadfast leadership, will take us.  I know, as this organization proves every day, that vigorous debate need not be subsumed by partisanship.  As attorneys general, we are called to serve.  We are expected to lead.

Thank you, once again, for your work, for your partnership – and for the opportunity to take part in this important dialogue. I look forward to all that we’ll do and achieve together in the critical days ahead.

 

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