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U.S. at a unique time in history for justice reform, says Attorney General Lynch

October 8, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
As attorney general, Loretta Lynch leads the Justice Department amid a spike in violent crime in several major U.S. cities, as well as national outcry over police-involved shootings. Gwen Ifill sits down with Lynch to discuss better transparency on law enforcement data, finding solutions for reducing mass incarceration and the national conversation about race and police-involved shootings.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Loretta Lynch is the country’s top law enforcement official. She faces a spike in violent crime in several major U.S. cities and police-involved shootings, sparking a national outcry for more accountability and transparency.

Gwen sat down with the attorney general at the Justice Department earlier today to discuss the federal government’s role in addressing all this.

GWEN IFILL: Madam Attorney General, thank you so much for talking with us.

LORETTA LYNCH, U.S. Attorney General: Thank you for having me.

GWEN IFILL: I want to start by talking about the subject which has consumed so much of your time since you have been attorney general, this whole question of violent crimes.

You have been meeting with communities around the country, here in Washington as well, and talking about the degree to which a lot of cities say that violent homicides, crimes have spiked in their communities, yet your own FBI statistics show a slight decline. How do you square these two things?

LORETTA LYNCH: Well, I think the issue of the day really is, how do we protect the American people?

Certainly, crime overall is down, and in many of our major cities, crime is down. But in some neighborhoods, crime is not only entrenched. We have seen a rise in certain types of violent crime. It’s a matter of great concern for those of us here at the department.

What I initially did in this regard was direct my U.S. attorneys to meet with their local counterparts, people on the ground, to talk about the causes of the crime, the nature of the crime, what were they seeing.

GWEN IFILL: I feel like we have had a lot of conversations about this, and, in the end, I’m not sure I know which is true, is it getting worse or is it getting better?

LORETTA LYNCH: I think it depends upon how you’re impacted by crime, but certainly the loss of every life diminishes all of us.

So, whether you’re in the neighborhood that has these rising numbers or whether you’re not, if someone in your city, if one of your neighbors, if your fellow Americans are feeling this, then it really is impacting all of us and it is a matter of concern for the department.

GWEN IFILL: I know you have spent a lot of time in the communities affected, in particular by police-involved shootings.

Yesterday, your FBI director, James Comey, said he found it ridiculous that the Department of Justice had not been keeping its own records on the number of police-involved shootings, that this has been left to news media organizations.

Why is it that the Justice Department hasn’t been on top of that?

LORETTA LYNCH: Well, certainly, I think it’s a serious issue. We find it unacceptable that we don’t have national, consistent data about not just excessive force, but officer-involved deaths, officer-involved shootings.

This information is important because, with it, we can pinpoint trends, we can look at how situations devolve from a standard interaction into one that’s less positive or perhaps fatal. And we can provide assistance and guidance to police and to communities.

We actually do mandate a lot of this. When the Department of Justice enters into a consent decree with the police department, or in many instances when we work with departments as part of our collaborative reform process, we do require that type of data, but it’s not consistent.

Every department handles data in different ways, records data in different ways. So, we have said that this is important, it’s vital. It’s actually unacceptable that we don’t have it. And what we’re right now is going further.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

I want to talk to you more broadly about whether you think we’re coming as a society or as a government to some sort of agreement on the concerns about criminal justice reform and mass incarceration. I’m sure you read the long, long story Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in “The Atlantic” about the spread of mass incarceration. And it seems to be an increasing topic as Capitol Hill as well.

Are we reaching a point where we can agree on what the solutions are?

LORETTA LYNCH: I think we’re at a unique time in American history and American dialogue, where we had this bipartisan moment, a recognition that the way in which we have been trying to keep people safe has, in fact, had, in some situations, the opposite impact.

And certainly it’s had collateral consequences in removing young men, particularly young men of color, from their communities at a time when they need to be there and their communities need them the most.

I was a young prosecutor in the ’90s, and I remember the days of violence in the gun trade and the concern that people had when they were passing these strict mandatory minimum laws. At the time, that was the thinking, that this is the way in which we can protect people. And we have seen the results of that.

We have seen that when we lock up nonviolent drug offenders, particularly those who are struggling with addiction, that it doesn’t really affect the safety of the community, but it has a devastating impact on the lives of those young people.

GWEN IFILL: And so this week, one of the things you suggested was release — the beginning of a series of releases, starting with 6,000 prisoners who have been held, you believe, too long.

That’s a drop in the bucket against the 2.2 million people who are held in federal and local jails and prisons. How do you expand on that?

LORETTA LYNCH: Well, the sentencing reform efforts that are on the Hill, I think, are very encouraging.

The Senate came out with a bill just last week. I believe the House is announcing their bill today. We look forward to reviewing those and working with both houses to make them not only effective, but productive in a way that keeps our communities safe and also gives people a chance at rebuilding their lives, because that can be done.

And I think this debate and this discussion is important. When we talk about not just people coming out on early release — and those individuals coming out soon are being released because the sentencing commission has tried to essentially ameliorate the harsh impact of the stricter crack laws relative to the cocaine laws.

And that change was accepted, and after judicial review, a number of inmates will have their sentences reduced.

GWEN IFILL: How does that take into account the fact that two-thirds of the people who are released end up back in jail three years later?

LORETTA LYNCH: That is the next part in this conversation.

And, frankly, it is just as vital and important a part as how we deal with the sentences at the front end. Providing the support and providing a way for people to reintegrate back into their communities is key. We also work with the Federal Reentry Council, which is a multiagency task force across government to look at a whole host of barriers to reintegration.

Housing, for example, is a major concern for those coming out of our criminal justice system, the ability simply to go home. What so many of us take for granted at the end of the day is a challenge when you are incarcerated.

So, we’re looking at making sure that the rules are consistent, that people who are eligible to return particularly to public housing are able to do so, so that families can come together again.

GWEN IFILL: Since you have been attorney general, and probably predated your service, we have been in a series of conversations about these issues, about criminal justice and about incarceration, and it all ties in with race and about police-involved shootings.

Are we turning the corner on those conversations or are we stuck in a corner, especially when race becomes the common thread?

LORETTA LYNCH: Well, I think we’re in the middle of a conversation, but it’s a conversation that I think we should look at as an opportunity.

This is an opportunity for many people in this country to have a discussion about race, about criminal justice, about the world of government in general. And I think we have to broaden the discussion, not just around issues of race and policing, but race and society and communities that don’t have the educational support, the economic support, the health care support to give residents, particularly young people, opportunity to break that cycle.

I will tell you, one of the most exciting things that happens is when you go to an institution and you’re talking about reentry programs with young men who are incarcerated there, and they talk about how the fact that if they are able to get an education while they are incarcerated, they feel they can break a cycle and release their children from a path that they were on, that maybe they followed their own parents down as well.

So, we’re looking at this at a larger sense, and I think — my hope is that this conversation can be larger and that it can really just inspire all of us.

GWEN IFILL: Attorney General Loretta Lynch, thank you very much for joining us.

LORETTA LYNCH: Thank you.

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