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Staying Involved During National Child Abuse Prevention Month, April 2014
April 23rd, 2014 Posted by

Courtesy of Karol V. Mason, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs

When he proclaimed April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, President Obama said, “Every child should have every chance in life, every chance at happiness, and every chance at success. Yet tragically, hundreds of thousands of young Americans shoulder the burden of abuse or neglect.” The President urged Americans to remember that we all have a role to play in preventing child abuse and neglect and in helping young victims recover.

Protecting children is a top priority of Attorney General Eric Holder. Since his days as a prosecutor he has recognized the terrible impact of violence, trauma and abuse on children and the importance of coordinating our response. As Deputy Attorney General under Janet Reno, he established “Safe Start,” a program designed to reduce the impact of children’s exposure to violence. When he took office as Attorney General in 2009, he picked up where he left off and launched “Defending Childhood,” an ongoing initiative to improve our understanding of the impact of children’s exposure to violence, turning that knowledge into workable strategies and effective programs.

This work comes at a critical time. A study released in 2009 by our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention showed that an astonishing 60 percent of children in the United States are exposed to some form of violence, crime, or abuse, ranging from brief encounters as witnesses to violent episodes as victims. The consequences of exposure to violence and abuse can lead in the short term to poor performance in school and to drug and alcohol abuse, but far more devastating is the long-term physical and psychological harm to the affected child. Kids who are exposed to violence have higher rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other physical issues. They are at greater risk of future victimization and suicide.

This damage extends beyond the individual children who are affected. We all feel the effects in rising healthcare, criminal justice, and other public costs. This significant public safety problem is fast becoming a serious public health problem – and it requires a wide-ranging response.

The good news is that because children are resilient, intervention and prevention work. OJP’s bureaus are engaged in supporting research that translates into programs and resources for those working with children.

For example, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention helps victims of child abduction and commercial sexual exploitation, and supports mentoring programs for tribal youth and faith-based and community initiatives.
The National Institute of Justice’s Violence Against Women and Family Violence Research and Evaluation program promotes the safety of women and family members and aims to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system’s response to these crimes.

The Office for Victims of Crime has highlighted the issue with its remarkable series of videos, “Through Our Eyes: Children, Violence and Trauma” and this year will fund demonstration sites to establish a consistent, coordinated response to child and youth victims and their families and caregivers.

We are also collecting information on the needs of underserved populations. Because relatively little is known about violence against American Indian and Alaska Native children, and because what we do know is of great concern, the Attorney General appointed a new task force specifically to study this issue. That task force is now holding hearings throughout the country, addressing the impact of child sexual abuse, the intersection between child maltreatment and domestic violence, and the impact of the juvenile justice system.

This month also gives us a chance to thank those already committed to helping children in need. Recently I was privileged to speak to over 1,000 people at the National Symposium on Child Abuse about their work at child advocacy centers, where children who are brought into contact with our child protective and justice systems are getting the services they need to deal with the trauma they have experienced, such as critical medical care and coordinated and efficient case management.

Eliminating child abuse is a huge challenge. Thousands of children in communities across America need us – all of us – to advocate for their future, to determine whether it will be one darkened by the violence and abuse they have experienced or one lit by care and hope. As the President said in his proclamation, “Our nation thrives when we recognize that we all have a stake in each other. This month and throughout the year, let us come together — as families, communities, and Americans — to ensure every child can pursue their dreams in a safe and loving home.”

I encourage everyone to join in dialogues and community events that put our children front and center in our lives. For Office of Justice Programs resources on this topic please visit http://ojp.gov/, and for direct help addressing child abuse contact the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.

Honoring the Earth, April 22, 2014
April 22nd, 2014 Posted by
Courtesy of Robert Dreher, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division
 
Once a year, on April 22nd, people all over the world stop to show reverence for the Earth and the life it contains.  For the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD), for the past 11 years running, we have honored that tradition with a day of service by continuing working alongside our partners, Washington Parks & People, at Marvin Gaye Park in Washington, DC.  Over the years, the division’s employees have devoted thousands of hours planting trees in the area, and building trails, gardens, and a new tree nursery at the park’s Community Greening Center.
 
We also honor those whose commitment to the Earth is demonstrated in their work to protect the environment, not just on Earth Day, but every day: the aquatic biologists, park and forest rangers, fishery managers, and wildlife conservationists who protect life and its habitat across the world; the scientists, policy experts and lawyers who set environmental standards and write regulations to protect the public health; the sanitation engineers, technicians, recyclers and alternative energy developers who strive to keep mankind’s footprint on the planet sustainable; and the teachers who nurture our children’s love and wonder for nature.
 
And I want to honor all my colleagues in ENRD, who work quietly but passionately every day to protect the balance of life on this planet, to ensure compliance with our nation’s laws that protect clean air, water and land, to defend the authority and policy decisions of federal land managers who are the stewards of this nation’s natural treasures, to protect endangered species, marine mammals, and migratory birds, to vindicate the rights and heritage of Native Americans, to vigorously defend our client agencies while respecting the fundamental right of American citizens to obtain judicial review of government actions affecting their interests, and to protect the rights of all Americans, of every race, ethnicity, and economic status, to clean air, water and land and equal opportunity to be heard in decisions affecting their lives.
 
In all of this, you honor the Earth, so in a sense every day is Earth Day.  But it is still a precious thing to step away from our work and our workplace on this special day, and come out here to feel the sun on our heads and the soil in our hands as we simply cherish the Earth we work so hard to protect all year long.
 
Deputy Attorney General James Cole assists Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert Dreher in planting a dogwood tree at the Marvin Gaye Park Community Greening Center in Washington.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole assists Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert Dreher in planting a dogwood tree at the Marvin Gaye Park Community Greening Center in Washington.

Employees of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division join volunteers from Washington Parks & People in planting garden beds at the Greening Center on Earth Day 2014.

Employees of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division join volunteers from Washington Parks & People in planting garden beds at the Greening Center on Earth Day 2014.

Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Toolkit Launches at White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice
April 22nd, 2014 Posted by

What does civil legal aid have to do with preventing homelessness among veterans and securing a job?  And what does the Federal Government have to do with civil legal aid?  Often times, a lot.  

Andy’s” 10-year-old felony conviction prevented him from pursuing his hopes of securing a state license to become a New York Licensed Practical Nurse.  The Fortune Society, a grantee of U.S. Department of Labor’s Reintegration of Ex-Offenders Program, referred Andy to MFY Legal Services in New York.  His legal aid lawyer helped Andy obtain out-of state criminal court records, gather proof of rehabilitation and represented him at the initial investigative interview.  The result was a successful license application and a job. 

Thanks to Supportive Services for Veterans Families program funding, the LSC-supported Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles helped “Jake,” a veteran experiencing homelessness who had spent many months moving from shelter to shelter, apply for VA benefits.  The VA granted his request for a pension and provided him with medical care and a housing subsidy.  Now Jake lives in a duplex and has reunited with his son. 

These are just two case studies showing why, in July 2012, the White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC) and the U.S. Department of Justice launched the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR or Roundtable) to raise awareness about how civil legal aid helps advance a wide range of federal objectives by promoting access to health and housing, education and employment, family stability and community well-being.  Associate Attorney General Tony West and Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy at the White House Domestic Policy Council Tonya Robinson are co-chairs for LAIR, which is made up of 17 collaborating federal partners.  

Staffed by the Justice Department’s Access to Justice Initiative (ATJ), an office Attorney General Eric Holder launched four years ago to help spearhead national efforts to expand access to civil legal aid and criminal indigent defense, ATJ launched a new LAIR Toolkit at the April 8, 2014, White House and Legal Services Corporation Forum on Increasing Access to Justice. 

As explained in the Welcome Message from Attorney General Eric Holder and Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Munoz, “[t]he Roundtable’s work is premised on the recognition that applying the power of legal services to meet federal objectives creates more opportunities for Americans to grab the next rung on the ladder out of poverty… In short, legal services can transform lives for the better, and there is a role for the Federal Government to play in helping to ensure access to these critical services.”  

The online resource guide contains useful information about civil legal aid and the intersection with many federal objectives.  Associate Attorney General West told the White House event attendees, “You’ll see a series of what we call ‘case studies’ on how civil legal aid supports federal efforts—for example, to help people stay housed, prevent domestic violence, and keep kids in school.  The wealth of information you’ll find at the Federal Agency Resources tab includes a listing by agency of selected grants and program activities for which civil legal aid providers are an eligible grantee, sub-grantee or partner, along with other examples of federal government activities that engage civil legal aid.” 

ATJ will continue to post case studies on new topics throughout the year, along with updates to the Federal Agency Resources page.  Some of the case studies already in queue include how Civil Legal Aid Supports Federal Efforts to help prevent elder abuse and consumer fraud, and how it helps people with disabilities, children and families, immigrants, Native Americans, and victims of disaster.  Ideas about the new LAIR Toolkit content can be shared with the Access to Justice Initiative staff by writing to LAIR@usdoj.gov.

Reentry and the Affordable Care Act
April 17th, 2014 Posted by

This post is courtesy of Associate Attorney General Tony West

Earlier this month, at a conference hosted by the Community Oriented Correctional Health Services and the journal Health Affairs, I had the opportunity to speak with a distinguished group of policymakers, researchers and health care and criminal justice professionals about the implications of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for those under correctional supervision.

The fact is that the Affordable Care Act holds the promise of expanding health care coverage to uninsured Americans, and potentially opens Medicaid enrollment to some 15 million low-income adults, including the millions of individuals who come into contact with our criminal justice system, of whom upwards of 90 percent are uninsured.

This moment is an opportunity, uniquely positioned at the intersection of public health and public safety, to reform correctional health care, to improve the health of our communities and to enhance public safety.  It is an opportunity born of necessity, as leaders across the political spectrum seek ways to better align our criminal justice investments with outcomes that actually make us safer.

At the Department of Justice, we understand that public health and public safety often walk hand-in-hand; that the public policy investments we make yield the greatest returns when they reflect the importance of that connection; and that key to making our communities safer is reducing recidivism by improving reentry, which in turn means focusing on the physical and mental health of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.

We know that the incarcerated population carries substantially higher rates of medical, psychiatric and substance abuse problems than the general population.  Rates of communicable diseases are higher among inmates; an estimated 39 to 43 percent suffer from one or more chronic health conditions; and men and women in this population suffer three times the rate of mental illness and four times the rate of substance abuse problems as compared to the general public.

Fortunately, we have a path forward.

We know that health care coverage and access to adequate health services can decrease the risk of individuals becoming involved with the criminal justice system in the first place.  Moreover, when individuals do come into contact with the justice system, we can dramatically improve the odds for successful reentry if we address their health and mental health needs once they enter correctional facilities and ensure continuity of care once they leave.  The Affordable Care Act, primarily through its Medicaid expansion provisions and parity for mental health and substance abuse treatment, provides us with this unique opportunity to reduce recidivism while improving public health.  Access to these benefits can be a critical factor in the success or failure of incarcerated persons upon their release.

Much of the work being done by the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which is chaired by the Attorney General, focuses on reducing the collateral consequences of incarceration and increasing access to employment, treatment and civic participation.  With our Reentry Council partners at the Department of Health and Human Services, we are jointly supporting a three-year pilot project to test the efficacy of enrolling prison and jail inmates in Medicaid prior to release, and we’re tracking usage, employment and recidivism outcomes along the way.

At the Department of Justice, we will require halfway houses in the federal system—known as residential reentry centers (RRCs)—to offer standardized treatment to prisoners with mental health and substance abuse issues.  Once fully-implemented, these services will be available to the approximately 30,000 inmates who are released through halfway houses each year, helping to promote consistency and continuity of care between federal prisons and community-based facilities.

This month, our Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance released a new solicitation requesting proposals to help states and local jurisdictions maximize Medicaid and marketplace resources on behalf of justice-involved individuals.  We are looking for innovative ideas to aid in all aspects of health care planning, from diversion alternatives and intake screening at the front-end, to reentry programs at the back end.  We want to be able to provide in-depth assistance to select jurisdictions on implementation of the Affordable Care Act, as well as policy guidance for all states and localities.

Of course, we must do more.

We must make it standard practice to assess the health care needs of individuals as soon as they come into the criminal justice system, being thoughtful about our options and basing decisions on individual needs.

We should be willing to consider detention alternatives such as drug and mental health courts, and we should make health care enrollment part of the intake and discharge processes for all inmates.

We must develop partnerships between correctional facilities and community health programs to promote information exchange and ensure continuity of care.

And we must target our actions to those who need services the most.  The Affordable Care Act gives us the chance to provide those with the highest risks and the greatest needs access to quality health care in a way that promotes public health and safety while strengthening community and respecting individual dignity.

Naturalization Ceremony Blog Post – “Welcoming New Partners to our Bold Experiment”
April 16th, 2014 Posted by

 

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This post is courtesy of Associate Attorney General Tony West.

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of speaking to hundreds of new citizens at a naturalization ceremony held at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Va.  It was an incredible experience — one that made me proud of our country’s well-earned reputation as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.  Gathered in one place were 700 individuals from over 100 different countries, represented by different flags, different cultures and different systems of government.  These 700 took an oath in unison and in one single moment they all became Americans. 

Of course, their individual journeys to this day were much more unique, complicated and hard fought than could ever be captured in a moment.  Some came from across the globe — from nations like Brazil, Russia, India, China, Ireland, Ghana and Afghanistan.  Others came from our neighbors – Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.  Some of them are business owners, doctors, teachers, artists and engineers.  And some are parents caring for America’s next generation.  

Some are new citizens like Corporal Jorge Luis Cuji Villacis, who came here from Ecuador when he was 11 years old, went to school and then joined the U.S. Marine Corps because he wanted to make his family proud, serve this country and become a better person. 

And what I found so inspiring about this ceremony is what it reaffirmed about this country.  We are a nation bound together not by a shared race, a single ethnicity or a state-sanctioned religious faith.  We ask neither that such traits be inherited nor left behind.  Instead, our country is defined by our founding principles: freedom, equality and democracy.  The idea that you are free to control your destiny and help shape the future of this nation, no matter where you came from, no matter who your ancestors are and no matter what you look like.  More than a place on the map, that spirit is what the United States of America represents and it’s what these new citizens embody. 

Becoming an American citizen and taking part in our shared story is a precious privilege that no one in that auditorium took for granted.  So as we welcome these new partners to our bold experiment in self-government, we must work to improve the inefficient immigration system that hampered them, and so many other talented immigrants, from starting their lives here.

We know that we can improve that system by strengthening our borders, streamlining legal immigration, holding employers accountable and creating a firm but fair path to earned citizenship for those immigrants who are already contributing to our economy and society in so many ways.  

That’s why we remain committed to working with Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reforms that will do justice to our immigration system and the hard working, talented individuals who come through that system seeking the privilege of becoming an American.

Promoting and Protecting Human Rights: The Department of Justice’s Commitment to Equality
March 14th, 2014 Posted by

This week, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin is representing the Justice Department in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss Civil Rights law enforcement at the Presentation of the U.S.’ Fourth Periodic Report Concerning the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  He gave the following remarks before the U.N. Human Rights Committee 

Thank you, Mary, and thank you to the Chair and members of the Committee.  My name is Roy Austin, and I serve as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.  I am honored to appear before this Committee.  I am joined today by my colleague, Bruce Swartz, a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in our Criminal Division, who will be speaking to you later in the presentation. 

Since the founding of our country, in every generation, there have been Americans who sought and struggled to realize our Constitution’s promise of equal opportunity and equal justice for all.  This past fall marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.  As we as a country contemplate the progress we have made over the past 50 years, I am happy to take the floor to discuss our nation’s continuing efforts to advance the cause of equality and ensure that all Americans can live free from discrimination. 

Our aggressive enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws shows our commitment to meeting our international human rights obligations, including those under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

First and foremost, the right to vote is the bedrock of any democracy.  The Justice Department is committed to ensuring full participation in our democratic process through the aggressive and evenhanded enforcement of our voting rights laws.  In recent months, to protect the rights of minority voters, we, under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, filed lawsuits against the states of Texas and North Carolina seeking to block the implementation of their highly restrictive voter identification laws.  These lawsuits evidence the department’s continuing commitment to ensuring that Americans across the country can cast a ballot free from discrimination. 

Like the right to vote, equal access to educational opportunities is essential to ensuring a strong future for our democracy.  Education is the gateway to full participation in our society.  Almost 60 years ago, our Supreme Court recognized that equal access to public education is a basic right.  The Justice Department continues to vigorously enforce federal laws to expand opportunities for all students, protecting them from discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, language, religion and disability. 

We strongly support diversity in our educational institutions.  Diverse educational environments help to prepare students to succeed in our diverse nation and to transcend the boundaries of race, language and culture as our economy becomes more globally interconnected.  This past summer, the Supreme Court preserved the well-established legal principle that colleges and universities have a compelling interest in achieving the educational benefits that flow from a racially and ethnically diverse student body and can lawfully pursue that interest in their admissions programs. 

Equal opportunity also means that qualified borrowers deserve equal access to fair and responsible lending.  Since its creation in 2010, the Civil Rights Division’s Fair Lending Unit has obtained more than $775 million in monetary relief for borrowers and communities impacted by discriminatory lending. 

For the infrastructure of our democracy to remain strong, we must ensure meaningful access to our courts.  The stakes are too high in the courtroom context for parties or witnesses to be excluded because of their national origin.  Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, state courts that receive Justice Department funds must provide people with limited English skills meaningful access to their programs and services, and we have recently worked with over 15 states to ensure this access. 

Through its Access to Justice Initiative, the department is working to help the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair to all, irrespective of wealth and status.  In support of its mission to protect the Sixth Amendment guarantee of effective assistance of counsel, the department successfully filed a statement of interest in 2013 in a class action lawsuit in Washington state.  Last December, the court issued an injunction that required the cities to hire a public defender supervisor to monitor and report on the delivery of indigent defense representation. 

Effective and accountable police departments are also a fundamental part of the infrastructure of democracy.  The vast majority of police departments in the United States work tirelessly to protect the civil and constitutional rights of the communities they serve.  But when systemic problems emerge, or officers abuse their power, the department uses its authority to implement meaningful reform and to hold specific individuals accountable under our criminal laws.  Over the last five years, the Civil Rights Division has obtained groundbreaking reform agreements with police departments to address issues including the excessive use of force; unlawful stops, searches or arrests; or policing that unlawfully discriminates against protected minority groups or women. 

Individuals confined in institutions are also often among the most vulnerable in our society.  For that reason, the Justice Department is continuing its work to prevent, detect and respond to abuse in U.S. prisons.  Last month, a department investigation of Pennsylvania’s prisons found that the manner in which PDOC (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections) uses long-term and extreme forms of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness—many of whom also have intellectual disabilities—constitutes a violation of their rights under the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The United States takes seriously the importance of addressing racial and ethnic disparities at all levels in the justice system, especially as it pertains to criminal sentencing.  We are working to modify our charging policies so that those who commit certain low-level, nonviolent federal offenses will receive sentences commensurate with their individual conduct—rather than be subject to mandatory minimum sentences. 

In addition, in our 2013 annual report to the Sentencing Commission, the United States called for reform of some mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, including sentences triggered by drug trafficking offenses.  In January 2014, the Commission voted to propose, for public comment, amendments that would include possible reductions to the sentencing guidelines levels for federal drug trafficking offenses.  These could have the effect of reducing eligible sentences by approximately 11 months. 

We are also making significant strides in our effort to reduce violence against women.  Under new provisions in the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act, tribes and the federal government can better work together to address domestic violence against Native American women, who experience the highest rates of assault in the United States.  The Act has led to significant improvements at the local government level—where the majority of these crimes are prosecuted—by encouraging victims to file complaints, improving evidence collection, and increasing access to protection orders. 

The United States recognizes that the promotion of civil rights, equal opportunity and non-discrimination are fundamental to ensuring universal respect for human rights.  As these efforts make clear, the United States has made great strides, but we recognize that much work remains in our efforts to realize Dr. King’s dream of a country with equal opportunity and equal justice for all.

 
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