Interview With Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary-Office of Justice Programs-DC Public Safety Radio

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host, Leonard Sipes.  Today’s interview is with acting Assistant Attorney General, Mary Lou Leary of the Office of Justice Program’s U.S. Department of Justice.  Miss Leary has 30 years of criminal justice experience at the federal, state and local levels, with an extensive background in criminal prosecution, government leadership and victim advocacy.  Before joining the Office of Justice Programs in 2009, she was Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.  She also served in leadership roles at the office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.  From 1999 to 2001, she held several executive positions at the Department of Justice including the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, Deputy Associate Attorney General, and Acting Director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Programs. For the sake of brevity, the Office of Justice Programs oversees the work of the federal effort to evaluate fund and provide technical assistance to the country’s criminal justice system.  Before getting into the bulk of the interview, I want to provide just some of the examples of the Office of Justice Programs in terms of what they do.  Just some of the topics, bullying, DNA backlogs, domestic violence, elder abuse and mistreatment, faith-based programs, hate crimes, human trafficking, identity theft, indigent defense, mentoring of offenders, juvenile justice law enforcement tactics, prisoner reentry, victim assistance, and a database as to what works.  Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Mary Lou Leary:  Well thank you, Len.  It’s a pleasure to be here.

Len Sipes:  I’m really happy for you to be here.  Then we had Laurie Robinson on before she left.

Mary Lou Leary:  I know.

Len Sipes:  And we had a real exciting interview, I think, and a very popular interview.  How does it feel going … and Mary Lou has left, she was the Assistant Attorney General, and now you’re in the Acting position.  That’s a lot of responsibility thrust on your shoulders.  But you’ve been in this position before.

Mary Lou Leary:  I have, Len.  It actually is quite a natural transition for me.  I was serving as the Principle Deputy Assistant General to Laurie Robinson at OJP for the three years of this administration.  And then when Laurie moved on, I stepped into the role of the Acting Assistant Attorney General.  And for me it feels just right.  I did this before during the Clinton Administration.  And it’s kind of funny, we’re into repeat performances.

Len Sipes:  Yes, we are.

Mary Lou Leary:  Because Laurie was the Assistant Attorney General during that administration.  And I came in when she left and served as the acting for the rest of the term.

Len Sipes:  But it’s such a broad, big organization.  Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, National Institute of Justice, the National Criminal Justice Reference Service that I worked for for five years early on in my career.  I mean, it just goes on and on and on in terms of the agencies.  Office for Victims of Crime, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Community-Oriented Policing, you have such an amazing amount of organizations under you.

Mary Lou Leary: Yeah.  Well that’s what makes this job so exciting, and really, so much fun.  There is this incredibly broad spectrum of issues.  We are the only federal agency that is dedicated to serving state, local and tribal public safety entities.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Mary Lou Leary:  And so public safety includes every piece that you could possibly find in the criminal justice puzzle.  All the systems, all the programs, it’s quite an extraordinary range.

Len Sipes:  Well one of the things that I brought up in Laurie’s interview was the fact that you get all these technical reports on CSI, Crime Scene Investigation.  All the fallacies and the fact that you watch these programs on television and most of what you see is not how it’s ordinarily done. But all these technical documents that develop all that expertise come from your shop.  You are Madam CSI.

Mary Lou Leary:  Yeah.  Well, in a way.

Len Sipes:  You are.  You’re Madam everything.  You’re Madam offenders leaving the prison system, you’re Madam corrections, you’re Madam law enforcement, you are the very epitome of the criminal justice system at the federal level.

Mary Lou Leary:  Well that’s exactly what OJP does.  We cover every single issue in the criminal justice system.  And it’s wonderful that we do that and that we have that broad scope.  Because we know that the best approach to take, and the one that really works, is a comprehensive approach.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Mary Lou Leary:  You can’t deal with one aspect of the criminal justice system without paying attention to the whole of it.  So for instance, if you increase the number of arrests that you’re making, that’s going to have an impact.  It’s like a domino effect all the way through the system.  The pre-trial, the prosecutor’s office, the court system, the prison system, probation, parole, reentry, it all is impacted, each piece by what happens in the other.

Len Sipes:  Yeah.  Nobody’s in isolation.  Everybody’s dependent on everybody else.

Mary Lou Leary:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  So what one part of the criminal justice system does affects the other parts of the criminal justice system.

Mary Lou Leary:  Exactly.  And that is, in fact, one of the primary messages that OJP delivers to the criminal justice field.  We are all in this together and the only way we can attack these problems and have success is by working together and by being conscious of the impact that one individual agency’s actions have on the rest of the system.

Len Sipes:  There are three things I want to get to pretty quickly in the interview.  Number one, a practitioner focus.  I’ve spoken to you in the past and one of the things that you’ve been adamant about is this idea of serving the practitioner, serving the people who actually run the criminal justice system, being sure that they have the research and the facts and the technical assistance to make sense of their day-to-day lives.

Mary Lou Leary:  Yes.  That is one of my primary goals at OJP.  I, myself, as a practitioner for 30 years, I was a local prosecutor, I was a federal prosecutor, I ran a national victim’s advocacy organization.  So I know how difficult it is for practitioners who are incredibly busy, to learn about what’s actually being researched in their field, and what works, what doesn’t work, what are the latest trends.  You are putting out fires all day, every day and you don’t really have the time to dig up the evidence and maybe base what you do on what is known to be effective.  And so that’s our job. We’ve got to figure that out.  We have to do the research.  We have to do the statistical analysis.  We have to read all the literature and understand the evidence about what does work in the criminal justice.  And then one of our most important jobs is translating that.  You have to make that understandable and accessible to practitioners in the field.  A mayor should be able to just go to a website or make a phone call and communicate that, “Hey, you know what we’re having a big problem with youth gangs in our city.  Do you know if anybody out there is doing something that’s been effective?  Do you know if there are any researchers who are really looking at this problem?  Help me out here.”  That’s our job.

Len Sipes:  Right.  You have said that they need to get answers.  They don’t need to get a telephone-sized book of research.  They don’t need to be given an esoteric overview, they need answers.

Mary Lou Leary:  Exactly.  But those answers better be good ones and they better be based on real evidence.

Len Sipes:  Right.  And I wanted to start the interview off with that background.  Because you are Madam criminal justice, you have served in the criminal justice system, you’ve been a practitioner.  So you’re just not a policy wonk that hangs out in DC.  You have actually served in the bowels of the criminal justice system and you know what it’s like, how difficult it is to get ahold of research and make sense of research.

Mary Lou Leary:  Yeah.  Exactly.  And I think that that is one of the things that I bring to the job that, frankly, makes me effective in that position.  Because I really understand, I get it.  I know what’s happening on the streets.  I learned everything … I know about that from working with local police departments.  I ran the cops office for a while which provides police to communities across this country.  And I think it’s important to have real respect for research and science, but also to have that practical, pragmatic approach to problems.

Len Sipes:  Absolutely.  You’ve been there.  So that’s the message I wanted to get out.  But having said that, research is an extraordinarily important part of what it is that you do.  Which we say we can substitute best practices for that word research.  Research, that word is a little scary to a lot of the people in the field. What you’re trying to do is establish best practices.  Because states and localities, they’re running out of money.  The budget issue is such a huge issue throughout the country for criminal justice organizations.  They’re basically saying, “Fine, if we’ve got to deal with a 15% reduction in our budget, we’ll do what we have to do.”  But what’s the way … what does the research say … or what are the best practices to maximize what it is we do?  Is there technology; is there new ways of doing things?  What can we do to maximize what it is that we do on a day-to-day basis?  And that’s what you’re emphasizing.

Mary Lou Leary:  Right.  Well you hit the nail right on the head, Len.  It’s true that resources are really tight.  And looking ahead, we can only presume that they will be getting tighter.  And so in that climate, it’s more important than ever that you base your strategy on what is the best practice, what we know works.  And it’s just as important not to waste any time, not to waste any resources human or financial, on things that don’t work.  Because we do know a lot about what doesn’t work as well and we want to discourage the use of those approaches that don’t work.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Mary Lou Leary:  We’re trying to make that approach easy and accessible, understandable.  In fact, just last year, we launched something called crimesolutions.gov.

Len Sipes:  Yeah.  Good.  Thank you.

Mary Lou Leary:  That’s a website.  Yeah.  It’s a great tool.

Len Sipes:  Crimesolutions.gov.

Mary Lou Leary:  It is a wonderful tool.  We’ve gotten great feedback from people.  And here’s how it works.  We have a group of researchers who scour the literature and look at all the practices, and rate programs that have been used across this country to address different crime problems.  So they rate them and we put it up on the website.  So you can see what’s effective, what’s working, and what’s not.  And you can search it every which way with all kinds of different search terms.  So say you’re the chief of police, or you’re running the youth program in your community, and you want to know is there anything out there that is evidence based that has worked on this issue.  You can go to crimesolutions.gov and search.  And you will see what programs have been used in that context, and which ones have been proven effective, and which ones have not really had an effect, and which ones are still kind of in the proving stage.  And this website now has over 200 programs on it.  And if you don’t find what you’re looking for the first time, go back for sure, because we are adding new programs every single week.

Len Sipes:  And the thing I want to emphasize about the website is that again, it’s not this esoteric, oh my God I’ve to spend five years reading this stuff.  It gives you a very quick chart in terms of what works and what doesn’t.

Mary Lou Leary:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  And then once you’ve figured out what works, what doesn’t, then you can research it from there.  So people should not be afraid, “Oh my God, not another esoteric website or piece of research.”  It’s easy to read.

Mary Lou Leary:  Exactly.  It’s not wonky in any respect.

Len Sipes:  There you go.

Mary Lou Leary:  And if you are more interested in reading the study itself, the methodology, and so on, you can do that.  You can just go deeper into the website and really get that kind of a nuanced understanding of it. But if you want something that’s quick and dirty and practical, that is your tool.

Len Sipes:  There you go.  Now you’re also talking about opening some sort of technical assistance outreach program, right.  So once they say, “Oh, geezies, peezy” this particular thing works in terms of what you said, in terms of gangs.  Here are the research in terms of where it works.  I wonder what funding technical assistance other research is available.  And so you’re now instituting a help desk, if you will.  Once they’re moving in that right direction they can talk to somebody who knows the subject well.

Mary Lou Leary:  Well, in fact, we have several ways of getting at that.  You can go on the website, ojp.gov and you can look under funding opportunities.  And then you also look at our science agency’s National Institute of Justice, and Bureau of Justice statistics to see what research reports are coming out, what statistical reports are coming out.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Mary Lou Leary:  But if you have a problem that you don’t really quite understand in your community and you need some expert help in assessing the problem, trying to figure out what is really going on here.  We are working on the development right now of something called the Diagnostic Center which would be kind of a companion piece to crimesolutions.gov.  Crimesolutions.gov will tell you about the programs that already exist and whether they work or don’t.  The Diagnostic Center will bring in some expert technical assistance to help you get a handle on what is my problem in my community.  And then we’ll match you will technical assistance and experts who can help you marshal the evidence-based practices to address that.

Len Sipes:  So we’re talking about a one-stop shop.

Mary Lou Leary:  Yeah.  Absolutely.

Len Sipes:  That’s amazing.

Mary Lou Leary:  Yeah.  It’s very exciting.

Len Sipes:  I’ve been in the criminal justice system for 42 years.  Why did it take us so long to do that?

Mary Lou Leary:  I know.  It is quite remarkable.

Len Sipes:  It is quite remarkable.  What you have done is significant.  It is one of the very few times in my 42 years in the criminal justice system that I’ve said that I can go to one spot, get a quick summation of the research, talk to somebody, get quick answers, that is just incredible.

Mary Lou Leary:  It’s very exciting.  And it really is the embodiment of what we have been encouraging for years.  Which is you know what criminal justice practitioners, there’s some sound research out there that could actually help you get your job done every day.  These researchers, they’re not a bunch of egg heads who don’t know how to talk to cops and other folks.  They do know and they want to talk, because they figured out all this cool stuff that you could be using to do a better job every day.

Len Sipes:  Right.  And again, with the budget situation people are looking for answers. I want to re-introduce Mary Lou Leary, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.  Giving out the website, it is www.ojp.gov, www.ojp.gov.   You did a heck of a YouTube video a couple years ago when you were Director of the Office a Center for Victims of Crime.  So obviously, you’re interested in new ways of bringing material, fresh ways of bringing material to the criminal justice system.

Mary Lou Leary:  Yeah.  Very interested in making all of our information easily available, quickly available.  You got to meet people where they are.  And we know from research that actually in a … not very long, most people will be accessing internet, for instance, from their mobile devices as opposed to a desktop. So if you can’t get to where the people are, your message will not be heard.  So we’re very interested in exploring the full gambit of social media, Twitter, You Tube and all kinds of things that my teenage daughter could probably tell you more about than I could. But we know that that’s the way that you got to go if you want to be helpful to people.

Len Sipes:  Your background, former prosecutor, former Executive Director for the National Center for Victims of Crime.  A lot of people are going to take — they’re going to like that.  I’ve heard people throughout the decades saying, “Too many policy wonks at OJP, not enough real people who have been in the criminal justice system.”  You’re a former prosecutor; you’re a staunch advocate of victims of crime. That brings … I’m not going to say a new perspective to the Office of Justice Programs, but it brings … in the minds of a lot of people … a refreshing perspective.  You understand how this system works, you understand criminal victimization.

Mary Lou Leary: Well I certainly do.  And I’ll tell you, having been a prosecutor for so many years, this is my dream job.  Because all those years I saw these problems that were seemingly intractable in the criminal justice system.  And you would see the same defendants.  You’d prosecute them this month and then you’d prosecute them next month for a very similar offense.  And sometimes you just kind of felt like you were just doing a clean-up operation and not really solving the problem.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Mary Lou Leary:  And you could see that the problems that played out in the courtroom were so related to many, many other public safety issues that never came into the courthouse. So now this … OJP puts me in a position where I can actually address those issues.  And I can reach out and develop partnerships with all kinds of public safety agencies, tribal leaders, philanthropic organizations, foundations, private sector, all kinds of partners all of whom really see that this issue matters, it’s so fundamental to the way we live in this country.

Len Sipes:  One of the things that you said to me is the idea of bringing everybody to this table to maximize our impact on the criminal justice system, so whether it’s foundations, whether it’s private organizations, to take all these dollars, all that expertise, and marshal it to have the greatest impact.  And I find that interesting.

Mary Lou Leary:  Oh, it is fascinating.  And we’re really just scratching the surface.  We had a meeting at OJP with foundations, a number of foundations about 60 of them, all of whom have interest in various aspects of criminal justice.  A number of them, for instance, are really interested in kids who get involved in the criminal justice system.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Mary Lou Leary:  Many of them are interested in preventing kids from getting involved in that system.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Mary Lou Leary:  There’s a whole domestic violence community out there with interest in the philanthropic sector.  And we have been partnering with a number of those kinds of philanthropic groups projects that we are doing at the Office of Justice Programs.

Len Sipes:  So nobody’s out there in isolation.  It is not [PH] PIU versus the Office of Justice Programs of the Department of Justice.  It’s PIU in concert with the Office of Justice Programs.

Mary Lou Leary:  Absolutely.

Len Sipes:  And that applies to the Urban Institute, that applies to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Correctional Association.  It doesn’t matter, the whole idea is let’s all work in lockstep because state and locales are hurting from a budget point of view.

Mary Lou Leary:  That’s right.  And if you … what we try to do is we try to seed innovative projects around the country, new approaches to problems.  But after a certain period of time, the program has to move forward on its own and we try to seed other places.  So in order to plan for sustainability of those innovative approaches, you have to look to other places in the community, other places in the philanthropic world, and so on.  So we work with our grantees to try to educate them about that.  And we are able to facilitate communication between the philanthropic sector and grantees.

Len Sipes:  But I don’t want to get too far away from that answer, the question I had a couple minutes ago.  Your role as a prosecutor has been firmly established.  And a lot of people feel very comfortable about that.  But you’ve seen victims, talked to victims of crime, you’ve represented the National Center for Victims of Crime.  You understand the nature of criminal victimization on a very personal level.

Mary Lou Leary:  I certainly do.  This actually is a real passion of mine.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Mary Lou Leary:  And it has been ever since I started as a baby prosecutor decades ago.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Mary Lou Leary:  I worked in the Middlesex County DA’s Office.  We had one of the very first victim/witness assistance units in the country.  And in fact, it was established by Senator John Kerry when he was the DA in Middlesex County.  And I learned from those advocates, how critically important the way you treat victims can be to their ability to recover. They need to be treated with respect and dignity.  And you need to make a victim feel safe.  And you need to make sure that a victim is heard.  That’s the most important thing.  So much more important than winning your case.  And I really feel that.  And I have really supported victims throughout my career.  And at OJP is a great opportunity to continue that. I am really excited because part of what we do, a big part of what we do at OJP, is working on victim issues through our office on victims of crime.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Mary Lou Leary:  And we have spent the last two years talking to folks who work with victims of crime all over this country.  We’re talking to practitioners, we’re talking to researchers, we’re talking to advocates, we’re talking to cops, you name it.  Anybody who has an interest in victim issues. What’s happening in this field, what are the unmet needs?  Crime has changed so much over the years.  Now we have all these financial frauds –

Len Sipes:  Yes, we do.

Mary Lou Leary:  – and internet perpetrated crime, and stalking through the internet, through devices you place on people’s cars, and so on.  There’s just a whole new world out there.  And it will continue to evolve. So the Office of Victims of Crime is looking at that and talking with people in the field saying, “Okay, we have a lot of these needs that have been with us forever that we haven’t met yet.  How do we meet those needs better, and at the same time, deal with these emerging crime issues and these emerging needs of victims?”

Len Sipes:  And I just wanted to point out there’s a lot of people out there who will be applauding as they listen to this.  Because, again, they have this image of people at the top of the Office of Justice Programs as being stoic policy wonks.  You’re not.  You’re a real live human being who’s suffered through this issue personally, directly, and you know, you’ve tasted it, smelled it, felt it, you know what’s going on out there.

Mary Lou Leary:  That’s exactly right.  And that’s why it’s so important to get out in the field and talk to people.  You have to see it, you have to talk, you have to hear it, you have to walk the walk. What we will see coming out of this big effort with Victims of Crime this summer, I believe, at the end of the summer is a report called Vision 21.  And that is to shape the path forward for the victim services field, into the 21st century and beyond.

Len Sipes:  That’s great.

Mary Lou Leary:  Yeah.  The Victims of Crime Act was passed in 1984.

Len Sipes:  Yes.  A long time ago.

Mary Lou Leary:  Things have changed a lot since then.

Len Sipes:  Yeah.  They have.

Mary Lou Leary:  And it’s time to revision the way we serve victims.  So I am just so excited.  I can’t wait to see that report and to most importantly, act on the recommendations.

Len Sipes:  In the final minutes of the program, one of the things I suppose that we want to do, is to assure that regardless of whether it’s law enforcement, corrections, parole and probation, the judicial system, the juvenile justice system which Attorney General Eric Holder is certainly a huge proponent in terms of this issue of tremendous violence being directed towards children.  It doesn’t matter what the issue is, your job is to be sure that the best research is being done, answering questions on the part of people at the county and state and local level, giving them access, quick access to this information via the new databases that you’re putting out.  So that’s the bottom line.  If there are questions, or if there are issues, they can come to the Office of Justice Programs for answers.

Mary Lou Leary:  Absolutely.  And they’ll find real people, and people who care very, very much about their work and about public safety in this country.

Len Sipes:  In the sense of being evidence based, we … I don’t want to get into a methodological discussion but it’s a matter of taking a look at the better research.  The research that’s fairly well done.  And trying to draw conclusions from that research.  And that’s essentially what you guys have done, in terms of crimesolutions.gov and in terms of the Diagnostic Center. Take a look at Project Hope, which is a wonderful program in Hawaii which has dramatically reduced recidivism as a parole and probation program, a substance abuse treatment program.  And what you’re doing is funding its replication in other areas throughout the country to see if the success that they had in Hawaii, which was considerable, can be replicated in Baltimore and in Des Moines, and in San Antonio.

Mary Lou Leary:  That’s exactly right.  In fact, we do that a lot with different kinds of projects.  Project Hope, this probation program was developed by Steve Alm, who was a former U.S. Attorney in Hawaii.  And right away we could see that his approach was different and that it was really interesting and promising. So we worked to support that program from the get go and then we sent in a team to research and evaluate it.  Those evaluations would knock your socks off, it just made such a big and positive difference.

Len Sipes:  It does.

Mary Lou Leary:  Exactly.  So now that’s just kind of like the business of OJP.  You get good programs started, you evaluate them, if the evidence shows, ‘whoa, this really works’, then you want to get it out to as many communities as possible and tweak it to apply to the needs of that particular individual community.

Len Sipes:  And getting that information out to those communities in the right way.  That you don’t have to struggle.  It’s like, oh my God, I remember when I worked for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, this is decades ago.  The Public Safety Secretary would bring this document from NIJ, telephone-size book, plop it on my desk and go, “Sipes, I don’t have time to read this.  Give me a one-page summation.”

Mary Lou Leary:  Right.

Len Sipes:  “Just tell me if it works, doesn’t work, and why it works and doesn’t work.” Because he knew that I used to work for the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.  So he sort of figured I would know how to read this big, long, esoteric document. What you’re trying to do is to take this research and make it come alive.

Mary Lou Leary:  Yes.  Make it real.  And you demonstrate that through actual programs in the communities.  Reentry is a great example of that.  We are helping communities across this country to deal with the massive return of incarcerated offenders.

Len Sipes:  Seven hundred thousand a year.

Mary Lou Leary:  Seven hundred thousand a year.  And where do they go?  They go right back to the neighborhoods that they came from.  The same environments, the same folks, the same buddies in the neighborhood. And you can’t just release people from incarceration, send them right back to that environment and expect that they are going to do just fine.  They’ve learned their lesson and now they’ll behave.

Len Sipes:  No.  It doesn’t work that way.

Mary Lou Leary:  No.  You have to provide support, and it has to start right from the moment of incarceration.

Len Sipes:  And if we did that, we could reduce the budgets of states and locals by huge amounts.  If you get just a 15% reduction in recidivism in the rate of return back to the prison system by providing programs, you’ve just saved that county, that state, tens of millions of dollars.

Mary Lou Leary:  Exactly.  And that is one of our major goals.  Not only to help them save that money, but at the same time, to improve public safety.  Because if your reentry programs really work, you will not only save money, but people in that community will be safer and you will reduce re-victimization.

Len Sipes:  And that’s the common theme throughout this entire program, reducing re-victimization.

Mary Lou Leary:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  That is what … you’re the office of reducing re-victimization.

Mary Lou Leary:  Yes, we are.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Mary Lou Leary:  And for me, that’s a wonderful orientation because I am so passionate about crime victims.

Len Sipes:  Final seconds of the program.  The law enforcement side of things, it’s people, places, little focusing on high-risk offenders, high-risk places.

Mary Lou Leary:  Yeah.  We know a lot about hot spot policing, for instance, where you look at the hot spots through your crime mapping and so on.  And that’s where you want to target your resources.  We know that works.  We know that there are innovative approaches to dealing, for instance, with youth violence.  We know that there are ways of saving money on incarceration and then reinvesting it in things that do work.

Len Sipes:  And a beauty about all this is that if you go to www.ojp.gov and if you go to the Crime Solution’s database you can get a tremendous amount of information on all of this.  Really want to express my appreciation to Acting Assistant Attorney General, Mary Lou Leary for being with us today.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety.  We really appreciate all of the cards, letters, comments and criticisms at times, in terms of what it is we do.  We really appreciate your participation.  And we want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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