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June 26, 2019

Notable new comments about crime and prosecutions from AG William Barr in speech to United States Attorneys

I noted last week that I have not recently posted too many speeches on crime and punishment from Justice Department leaders in part because there have not been too many of these speeches lately.  But today, Attorney General William Barr delivered these extended remarks as the "Opening Remarks at the U.S. Attorney's Conference" in Washington DC.  The whole speech is worth reading, and here are some excepts:

We can all be rightly proud of this Administration’s record on violent crime.  We have made impressive progress. But we must keep up a full court press.  There are still areas of the country where we have not made sufficient headway. For many communities in America, armed criminals and violent crime are still the norm.  We cannot accept this status quo.

That is why the Department remains committed to driving down violent crime, including through the vigorous prosecution of firearms offenses.  I have been glad to see that prosecutions under § 922(g) are at an all-time high.  We need to maintain our focus on getting illegal guns off the streets and out of the hands of violent criminals.  I want all of our offices to work with their state and local partners on “Triggerlock” cases that take advantage of stiff federal penalties to punish and deter violent felons. I also want to see vigorous enforcement of the background-check process, both against prohibited persons who “lie and try” and against firearm dealers who skirt the process. We need to provide real deterrence.  I look forward to working with all of you to step up our drive against gun crime.

As you all know, we also cannot reduce violent crime without confronting the role of gangs and other criminal organizations.  Working with our state and local partners, we must keep sustained pressure on these groups, which are primary drivers of violent crime. Many of these criminal organization have national or transnational profiles, and thus require a coordinated federal strategy....

While I am talking about violent crime, I want to make clear that, while our focus is often on predatory violence, I am also deeply concerned about the rise in hate crimes that we have seen over the past decade.  We must have zero tolerance for violence that is motivated by hatred for our fellow citizens — whether on the basis of their racial, religious, or sexual characteristics.  We also need to take a strong stand against those who would use violence to intimidate people from exercising their rights to free speech and to participate in the democratic process.

In addition to guns and gangs, the other significant driver of violent crime is drug crime, which represents another priority for the Department.  When I returned to the Department as Attorney General, it was disheartening to learn about the state of the drug problem across the country.  In most respects, the problem is much worse than when I left the Department in 1993.  I believe that the last Administration was not aggressive enough in fighting the drug threat; a lot of ground was lost; and a tsunami was allowed to build up that has been hitting the country.

We cannot be discouraged.  When I look at the overdose deaths, the blighted lives, and the families and communities broken by drug addiction, it reminds me why we cannot surrender.  We must work harder than ever.

I am proud that this Administration has shone a much-needed light on the opioid epidemic and that the Department has taken a number of dramatic steps to tackle this national crisis head on. And while there are encouraging signs of progress, our work is far from over.  On the streets, the rise of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids has been followed by 100-times stronger car-fentanyl and by mixtures of fentanyl with cocaine and other drugs.  We must also continue our efforts to prevent and punish diversion of licit drugs, another area where the Department has done great work.  And, as you know, while opioids are the most acute problem in many areas of the country, in other areas Mexican methamphetamine is surging.  We must keep fighting and keep innovating to match the ever-evolving threat....

As I alluded to earlier, there are also a number of other focused initiatives that I hope to see continue and strengthen during my tenure.  For me, the elder-fraud initiative provides a great example for how the Department can use its resources with a high return.  Not only is the elderly population among our most vulnerable citizens, but we are learning more and more about the role of foreign and transnational criminal organizations in perpetrating these schemes.  Another area I want see us redouble our efforts is in prosecuting human trafficking violations, especially those involving children....

That should give you a sense of my views on the priorities of the Department. But my charge today is not for you go out into the field and to maximize prosecutions in each of these categories. You will always need to strike a balance.  And as you do, here are a few things to keep in mind:

First, in a Department like ours, the notion of priorities should not be confused.  We have an obligation to enforce federal law, and that means covering all of the bases as best we can. If we say that the Department will prioritize violent crime prosecutions, we know that this cannot mean we ignore civil-rights violations or environmental crimes.  We must try our best to enforce federal law across the board with the limited resources we have.

A necessary corollary is that federal prosecutors must exercise sound discretion to strike a balance.  This balance requires that each of you adapt the Department’s general priorities to the specific circumstances of your districts. Thus, while opioids represent the greatest drug threat in many districts, others face greater problems with methamphetamines or cocaine.  And while transnational criminal organizations may be the primary driver of violent crime in one city, another may struggle with more localized, home-grown groups.  Our Department priorities are never intended to take your eyes off the leading problems in your district, including the great work of your civil divisions, which protect government resources by defending the United States and rooting out fraud against the government. Each of you is responsible for determining where we can have the biggest impact in advancing the safety and well-being of your communities....

Fairness must inform all that we do. After all, the whole concept of our American constitution was to establish a Government that could serve the common good while checking government power to protect individual liberty. And that is the Constitution we are sworn to support and defend.  As you carry out your mission, I rely on you to lead wisely, hold those who injure the public accountable, and zealously represent the United States in court, while at the same time maintaining unshakable confidence in the rule of law and justice for all. That is your charge, and I know that you embrace it willingly, and well.

June 26, 2019 at 02:23 PM | Permalink

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