Regina B. Schofield, Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs
Community Capacity Development Office 2007 National Conference
August 21, 2007
Thank you, Dennis.
I’m happy to be here at this important conference, particularly this awards luncheon. It’s a pleasure to honor the men and women who work so hard, day in and day out, on behalf of the safety of our communities. My congratulations to them in advance.
I want to thank Dennis and his terrific staff for organizing this event, and for all the good work they do to support our state, local, and tribal partners. I also want to thank the U.S. Attorney’s Office for helping to bring us all together, and for its leadership in the communities of Michigan’s Eastern District.
You heard this morning from Attorney General Gonzales about how important your work is to the health of our nation and to the welfare of its citizens. The Department of Justice and the Office of Justice Programs are proud to be your partners in making our neighborhoods safer and stronger.
Thanks to the 38 new awards the Attorney General highlighted this morning, the number of Weed and Seed sites across the nation now stands at 319. That’s 319 communities where local, state, and federal agencies, community and faith-based organizations, neighborhood leaders, businesses, and citizens have banded together to root out crime and replace it with opportunity.
Three of the new sites are here in Michigan, including one right here in Detroit. The new Detroit site will bring to seven the number of Weed and Seed sites in the Eastern District of Michigan. These programs, like so many others across the nation, are realizing remarkable success in driving down crime and improving the quality of life for residents.
Through the coordination of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Weed and Seed sites have worked closely with the district’s Project Safe Neighborhoods Task Force. The Weed and Seed sites play a key outreach role in Project Safe Neighborhoods, which targets gun crime and gang violence and is a cornerstone of the Administration’s crime-fighting agenda. Many of you work with Project Safe Neighborhoods programs, or you’re very familiar with how those programs work.
Since the program was initiated, federal firearms prosecutions have increased 76 percent. In 2004, the last year for which we have statistics, 93 percent of defendants charged with federal firearms offenses were convicted and sentenced. Three-quarters were sentenced to terms of more than three years.
Project Safe Neighborhoods has achieved the ultimate goal in many communities, namely, a reduction in crime. This success is due, not just to more vigorous federal efforts, but to greater cooperation between prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and others at all levels. It’s also due to expanded community involvement in violence reduction efforts. And here, Weed and Seed programs have played a vital role.
Over the past four years, Weed and Seed and PSN sites in the Eastern District of Michigan have come together to deliver a violence prevention program to more than 20,000 school-age youths.
In addition, a joint Weed and Seed and PSN initiative in northwest Detroit called Operation TIDE, which stands for Tactical Intelligence Driven Enforcement, is spreading the word about gang and firearm crime prevention and enforcement. Operation TIDE involves ten federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, community
players, and the media in an effort to implement the district’s PSN strategy.
Initiative organizers work together with Weed and Seed representatives to hold town hall and face-to-face meetings with community leaders and members. Thanks to this outreach, word is out that law enforcement is serious about gun and gang violence. As a result, homicides in the area have dropped by 43 percent, and non-fatal shootings have fallen by 26 percent, proving that raising public awareness does indeed make a difference in bringing down crime.
Public awareness and education have been key components of Weed and Seed and PSN here in Detroit. At town hall meetings in the Highland Park and Inkster neighborhoods, community members have been able to interact with law enforcement officers and register for block clubs, CB patrols, and Neighborhoods Watches, in addition to receiving free trigger locks. Residents now feel connected to criminal justice and human service agencies in their communities, and they are all working together to take back their neighborhoods.
Through the Face to Face program, the sites have also been successful in helping to keep parolees and former inmates from returning to prison. One element of Face to Face is the education of returning offenders on the potential for federal sentencing if caught with a firearm. But it also offers a carrot in the form of job and life skills training, housing, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
And speaking of drug prevention, the Eastern District of Michigan’s Drug Education for Youth, or DEFY, Camp celebrated its tenth year of operation last year. I understand that DEFY has done wonders in helping area youth steer clear of illegal substances and stay on course to healthy, productive lives.
Hand in hand with these drug and crime control efforts are efforts to help residents become financially stable. Economic empowerment is key to any community revitalization effort. To this end, Michigan Weed and Seed sites, and their counterparts across the country, have launched Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, Centers.
VITA centers are the fruit of a partnership between our Community Capacity Development Office and the Internal Revenue Service, and they are helping to provide free tax services to Weed and Seed residents. These services are critical to restoring economic vitality to communities, as almost 60 percent of Weed and Seed residents earn less than $35,000 a year.
VITA services have made a tremendous impact in Weed and Seed communities by helping residents take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The credit is the largest federal anti-poverty program in the country, but up to 25 percent of credits, or 9 billion dollars, goes unclaimed each year. This is a particular problem in Weed and Seed communities.
VITA centers increase the likelihood that low-income residents will be able to claim and receive all of the income tax refund and credits to which they are entitled. Between the EITC and the Child Tax Credit, a working family with two children could receive up to $9,300 annually as tax credit. For many, this is the difference between owning a house or a car, or even opening a bank account.
The VITA program has been very effective here in Michigan. Thanks to its services, Weed and Seed residents in the Michigan sites have been able to increase their disposable income by more than $150,000. Clearly, this program is opening doors to many low-income families and helping them to become actively engaged in the betterment of their communities.
Weed and Seed and Project Safe Neighborhoods play a vital role in our efforts to reduce violent crime. I’m sure most of you are aware of recent reports about the rise in crime rates in some cities and communities. The uptick is by no means universal, nor is it dramatic. But it is happening in places, and it’s our responsibility to understand why.
Last winter, Attorney General Gonzales directed Justice Department officials to visit 18 cities to hear from law enforcement officials and community leaders about what problems they are facing. Not surprisingly, we heard that every community faces unique challenges. But we also heard some common experiences – the high incidence of violence committed by loosely organized street gangs, the prevalence of guns in the hands of criminals, the trending of youthfulness in violent crimes.
We continue to work to understand the reasons behind this phenomenon. But we must also take fast action. We will depend heavily on Weed and Seed and PSN sites to help reverse this trend in areas where we’ve seen spikes. The issues giving rise to the problem are very complex, but one thing is certain: It will take the cooperation of agencies and organizations at all levels to restore health and safety to these communities.
Our efforts to address violent crime, led by our Weed and Seed and PSN partners, will enable us to meet the most pressing needs of neighborhoods and communities throughout the country. We can also be confident that we’re supporting the vision of community leaders and residents, all of whom want to see their neighborhoods free of crime and fear.
The Office of Justice Programs is proud to be an integral part of those efforts. Through the Community Capacity Development Office we’re providing daily support to community partners not only through funding, but through training, technical assistance, information resources, and the facilitation of strategic planning and critical partnerships.
Once again, I want to congratulate today’s honorees. And I want to thank each and every one of you for your commitment to your neighborhoods and communities. You’ve helped to turn apathy into action, fear into empowerment, and despair into hope. I applaud your dedication, and I wish you well as you continue your good work in all 319 Weed and Seed sites across America.