Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch Delivers Remarks at the White House Women and the Criminal Justice System Convening
Washington, DC United States ~ Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Thank you, Madison [Strempek], for that wonderful introduction, for using your voice and your passion to fight for justice and for showing other kids who are going through a difficult experience that they are not alone. You are living proof that one person – no matter how young or how old – can make a difference and I hope that you’ll keep speaking out to make sure that we do right by everyone in this country, including people like your dad. I promise you that I will, too. I want to thank everyone here for your warm welcome. It is a privilege to be here today with so many so many dedicated public servants, devoted advocates and good friends and it’s a pleasure to take part in this exciting program.
One of the seminal missions of the Department of Justice – the only cabinet agency named after an ideal – is to ensure the full measure of fairness and equality for everyone whose lives we touch. It is easy to look up the law, but our work is so much more than that. How do we hold justice in our hands? How do we ensure that those who go through our criminal justice system, both those who work within it and those incarcerated by it, retain the dignity and worth afforded everyone in this great country, regardless of their circumstance in life? Since the beginning of the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice has made it a priority to ensure that America’s criminal justice system is efficient, effective and fair. Through efforts like the Smart on Crime initiative, the Department of Justice is reorienting the way we approach criminal justice to focus on evidence-based strategies for creating positive outcomes. And just as the issues with which we grapple cut across all segments of society, our approach must also be multi-disciplinary. Through partnerships with agencies like the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development, we’re taking a holistic approach to problems that obstruct opportunity and lead to crime in the first place – from poverty to substandard schools to inadequate mental health resources, because it is hard to say there is true justice when so many of our citizens don’t even have a chance in life. And through our work with state and local law enforcement agencies, we are promoting community policing approaches that foster trust, strengthen communities and save lives, because there is no justice unless the members of all our communities have the benefit of caring, positive law enforcement that truly protects and serves. These initiatives – and so many others – are helping us to make progress. But it is clear that no one program or initiative will solve every problem – and part of our approach – part of ensuring justice for all – involves understanding the challenges that different populations experience when they come into contact with the criminal justice system. As we close out Women’s History Month, this forum presents an opportunity to focus on the unique issues and challenges faced by women in criminal justice – as law enforcement officers; as victims of crime; as incarcerated individuals; and as formerly-incarcerated individuals who are working to reenter society.
Our work begins with making sure that our law enforcement community reflects the diverse makeup of our country – a priority that not only brings us closer to our values as a nation, but also helps us do our job as law enforcement officers by promoting trust with the communities we serve. Unfortunately, even today – in 2016 – there are barriers to women who want to serve as law enforcement officers. That’s why, just last year, the Civil Rights Division joined with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to announce the “Advancing Diversity in Law Enforcement Project” – a new research initiative designed to identify the obstacles that undermine diversity in law enforcement and propose best practices for supporting equal opportunity in recruiting, hiring, retaining and promoting police officers. We are working to understand and remove barriers that inhibit racial and gender diversity, including those that confront women of color in this field. And our Civil Rights Division is leading robust efforts to prevent employment discrimination within law enforcement – ensuring that women have the chance to serve and protect the communities they love. Because as we seek to address the issues of women in the criminal justice system, women’s voices must be part of the entire system.
Encouraging and allowing more women to work in public safety is vital to improving the way our law enforcement operates – but we also need to make sure that all law enforcement officers – men and women – are equipped to work productively with women who are victims and survivors of crime. We are taking a victim-centered approach to human trafficking crimes – which disproportionately impact women –coordinating the efforts of law enforcement and victim-services providers so that the needs of survivors stay front and center. Last December, in response to requests from law enforcement and community leaders, the Department of Justice released new guidance to help state and local law enforcement agencies more effectively protect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Just last week – following a roundtable discussion last year with law enforcement leaders and stakeholders from around the country – our Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS Office, released a new publication that serves as a companion to our guidance, offering assistance to law enforcement in addressing gender bias through officer training and accountability; developing clear policies, resources and partnerships; and applying a trauma-informed, survivor-centered approach to address sexual assault and domestic violence. And even as we proactively address this issue, we will continue not only to investigate police departments that display discrimination against women, but also to craft comprehensive settlement agreements to bring real reform to their communities. Fair policing practices are not a burden to law enforcement – they are the point of law enforcement. No woman should ever feel that her gender prevents her from receiving the full and fair assistance that our society guarantees.
That guarantee extends to women in every community across the country, including those who are incarcerated and those who are seeking to reenter society. We know that incarcerated women face challenges that set them apart from their male counterparts – from greater likelihood of past trauma and abuse to higher rates of certain chronic and acute medical conditions, to greater levels of mental health and substance use disorders. Women are also more likely than men to have been the primary caregivers of their children prior to incarceration, which poses an additional challenge to reentry. Put simply, we know that when we incarcerate a woman we often are truly incarcerating a family, in terms of the far reaching effect on her children, her community and her entire family network.
The Department of Justice is working to alleviate those challenges and to help incarcerated women become successful, productive members of society. Last October, the Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, or OJJDP, released its groundbreaking Girls Policy, which identified a range of issues that affect young women – from family violence to sexual exploitation – and committed to providing support ranging from technical assistance, to grants, to research and data collection support for states, tribes and local communities. A few weeks ago, the National Girls Initiative, or NGI – in partnership with our Office on Violence Against Women and OJJDP – held a roundtable to explore the unintended consequences of mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence on girls of color. NGI will be hosting additional roundtables to examine subjects that are too often overlooked – from American Indian and Alaska Native Girls in the federal, state and tribal justice systems, to Pregnant and Parenting Girls in the Juvenile Justice System; to Girls Courts that link at-risk young women to community resources, counseling and social services. I’ve just noted a number of things. But one thing that justice demands is that we always look to see where we can do more. I am pleased to announce that, in the coming days, the Department of Justice will be engaging in a review of the experiences of women in the federal prison system – a review that will give us a clearer picture of how to ensure that incarcerated women are able to heal old traumas, chart new futures and build lives of promise and opportunity.
The federal Bureau of Prisons is already working to implement and expand a range of gender-responsive initiatives. The Mothers and Infants Together Program allows eligible pregnant inmates to live in community-based centers during the final trimester of pregnancy and to stay with their child during the critical early months. Gender-specific residential reentry programs provide safe and supportive environments for women transitioning from prison to the community, offering services like employment counseling, job placement and financial management assistance. Residential Drug Abuse Programs and initiatives like the Resolve program offer support for women who struggle with substance abuse or mental health issues and help incarcerated women heal from trauma. Now let me mention another important issue. The Department of Justice as a whole is remaining vigilant in protecting the rights of transgender women in American prisons. In the past, being trans has too often meant a life of intolerance and isolation, not just in prison, but in life. Even recently, we have seen state and local efforts to impose on trans people an identity that they do not recognize as their own. But I want to make clear that the Department of Justice and the Obama Administration is determined to ensure that transgender individuals can live the lives they were born to lead – fully, without discrimination and with the support of their community and their country.
With all of these efforts, we are sending a clear message to every woman in this nation who feels let down, left out and left behind: you are not alone. The Department of Justice is committed to advancing the equality and opportunity that every individual deserves. And as long as any woman, anywhere, is prevented from accessing the full blessings of American life, then none of us have access to those blessings. The Department of Justice will stand with you – and I will stand with you – to make their promise real. I am proud of the steps we are already taking to make our criminal justice system more effective, more fair and more responsive to the needs of all those who come into contact with it. But there is no doubt we have more to do – and all of you here today are essential leaders and vital partners in that work. Over the course of today’s program, you will examine challenging issues. You will forge new relationships. And you will discuss the road that still stretches before us – and the steps we will take, together, towards a brighter future. As I look out over this extraordinary gathering, I am excited about the progress we will make – and the more just society we will build – in the days, months and years ahead. Thank you for your participation in this important program and thank you for all that you do, every day, to make opportunity and justice a reality for all.