Thank you, President Rodgers, for those kind words; for your exemplary service as Commissioner of Douglas County, Nebraska; and for your leadership as President of the National Association of Counties since taking office last year. It’s a pleasure to stand with you today, and a privilege to join you – along with NACo’s Board of Directors and entire leadership team – for this important annual conference. And it’s an honor to help welcome this distinguished group back to Washington this week.
Each year, this event brings together some of our nation’s best and brightest public servants for a series of wide-ranging policy discussions. It presents a chance to explore cutting-edge strategies for addressing shared concerns, exchanging ideas and information, and strengthening the vital relationships that will help take our collective efforts to a new level.
I’m pleased to add my voice to this critical dialogue once again this year. I’m proud to join so many essential leaders in confronting some of the most pressing issues – and urgent public safety challenges – that our communities face. And I’m eager to stand with each of you in building on the impressive work that’s underway in counties across America – particularly through innovative programs like NACo’s Smart Justice Initiative.
I know President Rodgers – and many of his colleagues – have long championed the kinds of proven, data-driven solutions that Smart Justice is helping to identify and promote. And I would be remiss if I didn’t note that, when it comes to criminal justice reform, NACo’s members are leading the way in implementing evidence-based decision-making processes, drawing on rigorous scientific research, and seeking opportunities to leverage scarce resources to improve the strength and integrity of local justice systems – and broaden the impact of the prevention, intervention, enforcement, and reentry programs that so many of you have helped to build.
As you know – and as your public safety subcommittee heard over the weekend from Director Denise O’Donnell, of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and Senior Advisor Amy Solomon, of the Office of Justice Programs – this type of approach has been fully embraced at every level of today’s Justice Department. And we’re not merely raising awareness about the benefits that evidence-based solutions can hold for other criminal justice professionals and public servants. We’re leading by example.
Over the last four years, an emphasis on becoming smarter and tougher on crime has infused – and informed – the Department’s work on a range of policy questions. And it’s driving current efforts to partner with NACo members, and an array of other government and private sector leaders, to develop comprehensive solutions to even the most complex and intractable challenges.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the work of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council – a group I first convened in 2011, which brings together leaders from 20 federal agencies to address reentry as more than just a criminal justice issue. After all, we know reentry is not just a matter of public safety – it’s also an issue of housing and health care policy; a question of education and employment; and a fatherhood and family challenge that affects millions across the country every year.
The reality is that – in America today – 1 in 28 children has a parent behind bars. For African American children, this ratio is roughly 1 in 9. In total, approximately 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons every year. And another 9 to 10 million cycle through local jails.
At any given time, the sheer number of individuals and families dealing with the challenges associated with reentry is staggering. But thanks to the Reentry Council’s leaders and partners, we’re fighting to remove barriers that too often prevent formerly incarcerated individuals from smoothly rejoining their communities – and becoming responsible, law-abiding members of society. We’re helping call attention to successful programs, striving to dispel myths about reentry, strengthening our policies, and engaging with an expanding group of allies to advance this comprehensive work.
Despite the significant threat posed by sequestration – and the budgetary limitations we’ve all been forced to contend with in recent years – we are leveraging federal justice resources as never before, so we can ensure that the Department can keep supporting county leaders like you. To date, under the landmark Second Chance Act, the Justice Department has awarded over 400 grants totaling more than $250 million to support adult and juvenile reentry programs. Thanks to the advocacy of NACo and its partners, counties were included in this legislation. They now make up almost half of all Second Chance Act demonstration programs. And the results they’re achieving are nothing short of remarkable.
For example, one innovative partnership in Pennsylvania – known as the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative – has brought together jail and court officials with the county health department and the county department of human services. Together, these agencies have devised a screening and treatment initiative that has not only reduced the recidivism rate by half – when comparing participants to a control group – they have also secured a return-on-investment of roughly six dollars saved for every dollar spent on the program.
Under the banner of Justice Reinvestment, the Justice Department is also helping to bring about big-picture criminal justice system reforms – thanks to the leadership of state and county officials in states like North Carolina – by reducing corrections spending and reinvesting in public safety strategies. And they are doing so in a way that’s beneficial for both the state and its counties.
Of course, I recognize that there will never be a simple, one-size-fits-all solution for addressing our criminal justice challenges. But we can all be encouraged by the promising work– and the progress – that some jurisdictions are seeing when it comes to reentry. And we must not allow the size or complexity of any problem to deter us from taking action – particularly as we strive to protect the safety, and ensure the future, of America’s most vulnerable citizens: our children.
Last December’s horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut brought into sharp focus the need to reinforce our public safety efforts – and seek new ways to address the epidemic of gun violence that afflicts communities across the country, and touches every city and town represented here. In response, my colleagues and I have renewed our commitment to working with NACo members and other allies to reduce gun violence and prevent future tragedies.
Earlier this year, under the leadership of Vice President Biden, I worked with a number of my fellow Cabinet members to assemble a series of common-sense recommendations for keeping guns from falling into the wrong hands, keeping our young people safe, and keeping our neighborhoods and schools more secure. This comprehensive plan – which President Obama announced in January – is founded on a consensus that emerged from the discussions we convened with representatives from more than 200 groups. And it has led the Administration to call on Congress to adopt legislation requiring “universal” background checks, so that a full background check is performed every time someone attempts to buy a gun; imposing tough new penalties on gun traffickers; and banning high-capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons, updated and stronger than the bill enacted in 1994.
In addition to advocating for Congressional action, agencies across the Administration are working to implement the 23 executive actions that President Obama announced in order to provide federal officials – and local leaders like you – with the resources and information we need to keep our citizens safe. For instance, we reaffirmed our encouragement to licensed gun dealers to process transactions for private sellers using the NICS background system. We’re moving to strengthen this critical tool by addressing gaps, making certain that the information included in the system is complete and accurate, and ensuring that our laws are effective when it comes to identifying those who should not have access to firearms.
Beyond this work, the President has taken steps to end what had essentially become a “freeze” on rigorous, non-partisan research into gun violence – and effective strategies for its prevention – by the Centers for Disease Control. He has instructed relevant agencies to issue guidance making clear that, under current law, doctors are not prohibited from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement. He’s directed agencies to finalize regulations, under the Affordable Care Act, that will increase access to mental health services for those who need them. And he has asked Administration leaders to work alongside school districts and community officials to develop plans to make schools, institutions of higher learning, and houses of worship safer.
But all of this is only the beginning. The Justice Department is also working in a variety of ways to reinforce existing anti-violence programs – and to boost the capacity of proven allies like you. Since 2009, this commitment has led us to award more than $3.5 billion to state and local partners under Byrne-JAG – a grant program that helps agencies and departments across the country close budgetary gaps and gain access to the resources they need. Last year alone, we distributed over $14.5 million in local Justice Assistance Grants to 245 counties. Additional funding streams have been made available through the COPS Hiring Program – which, over the last four years, has awarded more than $1.5 billion to create or protect over 8,000 jobs in local law enforcement. And I’m pleased to note that the President’s plan to reduce gun violence calls for an additional $4 billion in COPS Hiring Grants funding to support over 15,000 law enforcement officers.
Of course, our ability to continue providing this support – and keep building on the progress that so many of you are leading – will soon be severely hampered unless Congress adopts a balanced deficit reduction plan and ends the untenable budget cuts that went into effect on Friday.
If allowed to persist, this so-called “sequester” – which will cut over $1.6 billion from the Justice Department’s budget over just seven months – will undoubtedly have a negative impact on programs affecting the safety of Americans across the country. It will curtail our ability to respond to crimes and other threats, and to investigate wrongdoing. And it will reduce our capacity to offer assistance and provide grants to partners like you – by eliminating over $100 million in grant money for awards like the ones I’ve just mentioned.
That’s why I’ve urged Congressional leaders to act swiftly in ensuring that the Department will have the funding we need to keep fulfilling our missions – and keep everyone in this country safe. And it’s why I’m proud to stand with NACo today in renewing my commitment to cooperation and collaboration in the face of any challenge; reaffirming my strong support for the vital work that’s underway in cities and towns across America; and refocusing our common efforts to build the kinds of safe, thriving communities where our citizens – and especially our young people – can grow and thrive.
In advancing this work, I am proud to count you as colleagues and partners. And I look forward to all that we must – and will – achieve together in the days ahead.