Justice News

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Speaks at the Southeastern Regional Reentry Conference
Chester, PA
United States
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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Thank you, Zane for that introduction. I am very pleased to be here among this dedicated and diverse group of criminal justice professionals.

I want to thank Zane and his office for hosting this conference. I’d also like to thank the event co-sponsors, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the Widener Center for Violence Prevention. I want to acknowledge Magistrate Judge Tim Rice from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and Jana Law, Supervising U.S. Probation Officer from the Eastern District – both of whom have been champions of reentry in this district and state. I also want to thank Chairman Michael Potteiger from the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, and Dan Ronay from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, for showing their support for this effort by being here today.

And I want to commend all of you – corrections officials, prosecutors, community and faith-based leaders, and practitioners and policymakers from the federal, state, and local levels – for your participation and for your commitment to improving reentry successes in your jurisdictions. Your work is helping to realize the enormous potential of our criminal justice system to change lives and transform communities – and it could not come at a better time.

Today, some 2.3 million people – or more than 1 in 100 American adults – are behind bars in the United States. At some point, 95 percent of these prisoners will be released. This translates into some 700,000 people coming out of our state and federal prisons every year. Two-thirds of all released state prisoners will be re-arrested within three years, and half will return to prison. Among released federal prisoners, 40% are re-arrested or have their supervision revoked within 3 years. 

Aside from the very serious implications for public safety, recidivism also impacts budgets at the federal, state, and local levels. Our Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that more than $74 billion is spent on federal, state, and local corrections annually. In fact, it is one of the most expensive items in any state budget. And with more than $6.5 billion spent on the Bureau of Prisons each year -- it takes up a substantial portion of the Department of Justice budget as well.

Jails add another dimension to our reentry challenges. There are almost 12 million jail admissions and releases every year. These inmates are typically held for very short periods, making reentry planning extremely difficult, particularly for the many small, under-resourced facilities across the country.

It is clear that we face significant challenges in ensuring the safe and successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals into our communities. The issues are complex and the stakes are high. But in order to effectively respond to these challenges, we must work together and engage stakeholders at every level in these joint efforts to find lasting solutions.

This Administration and this Department of Justice have made effective reentry a priority. We are working on all fronts – and across many agencies – to promote viable reentry programs, explore innovative practices, support research, and expand partnerships.

In the Department, our U.S. Attorneys have played a key role in this effort. Last January I sent a memorandum to all U.S. Attorneys reversing an old Department policy that actually discouraged involvement in reentry programs. Now, all U.S. Attorneys Offices are affirmatively encouraged to get involved in reentry courts and other viable programs. This is consistent with the Department’s Anti-Violence Strategy, which is led by the U.S. Attorneys, and prioritizes reentry as one of its three principal components, along with prevention and enforcement. Last year, we issued a Reentry Toolkit for U.S. Attorneys that highlights the work going on in many districts, like the STAR Reentry Court here in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Here – and in jurisdictions across the country – our U.S. Attorneys are working closely with their federal, state and local partners to make effective reentry a reality.

The Bureau of Prisons also continues to do its part, providing treatment and programs at its 118 federal prisons across the country, including 9 right here in Pennsylvania. Using an evidence-based approach that targets individuals who are at the highest risk of reoffending and have the greatest needs, the Bureau of Prisons provides residential substance abuse treatment and other cognitive behavioral therapy, operates job skills training programs, and educates inmates who are in need of a GED. We are exploring how to expand programs proven to reduce recidivism, like our Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), while reviewing our other programs to identify more that can and should be expanded based on evidence of their success.

As prisoners finish their sentences, we are working to identify those with higher risks and needs for placement in residential reentry centers (RRCs), while sending those with lower risks and needs directly to home confinement. This triaging approach results in the most efficient and cost-effective use of the limited numbers of RRC beds and helps to provide more individuals with the support they need as they reenter society.

The Attorney General chairs a Federal Interagency Reentry Council composed of 20 federal agencies – bringing together cabinet officials and other leaders to tackle some of the most pressing reentry challenges. The purpose of the Council is to leverage federal reentry resources and to improve community safety, help returning inmates to become productive citizens, and lower the direct and collateral costs of incarceration.

In the year-and-a-half of its existence, the Council has had tremendous success in lowering barriers to successful reentry. We’ve helped to publicize resources that can aid jurisdictions in their reentry efforts, we’ve clarified policies that affect formerly incarcerated individuals, and we’re creating new strategies and forging critical partnerships that can help make the transition from corrections facilities to communities easier and safer. These efforts are aimed at giving jurisdictions the tools they need to help returning prisoners become productive, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens while discouraging behavior that may land them back in jail or prison.

A number of the Council’s many accomplishments are on the employment front. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has released guidance that discourages employers from denying jobs to applicants with criminal records if the record is unrelated to the job for which they are being considered. And the Department of Labor is educating the entire public workforce system about explicit steps to take to ensure compliance with the EEOC guidance and other nondiscrimination laws, and to promote employment opportunities for this population.

Housing is another area the Council is working to address. Last year, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, sent letters to executive directors of every public housing authority and HUD subsidized owners indicating that people who have served their time should not categorically be denied access if they do not fall into a prohibited category. And we’ve actually heard some great stories about the impact these letters have had on real people and their families -- right here in Pennsylvania.

Also as part of the Council’s work, we have published a series of what we call “Reentry MythBusters” to correct misinformation that often unfairly penalizes formerly incarcerated individuals. And we’re exploring ways that we can limit the impact of collateral consequences, whether they come about from misinterpreted policies or are sanctioned by law. With funding provided by the National Institute of Justice, the American Bar Association has conducted a study of the collateral consequences of criminal convictions in every jurisdiction in the United States.  The ABA has catalogued about 35,000 statutes and regulations that may impose collateral consequences on people convicted of crimes, creating barriers to housing, jobs, benefits and more – and posted its findings on a new website. The “National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction” website was just publicly launched, and will be an important resource moving forward.

The Department also provides funding to state and local entities for reentry programs through the Office of Justice Programs. More than $250 million has been awarded to some 400 Second Chance Act grantees across the nation. In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections just received a new competitive award to support the development of a comprehensive reentry plan and a statewide reentry task force. Another Pennsylvania Second Chance award was made to Allegheny County to continue the good work of the Allegheny County Reentry Initiative, which ensures that high risk, sentenced inmates have the treatment and training they need – both in jail and in the community. And Philadelphia just received a $1.5 million Community Based Violence Prevention Demonstration Program grant to expand Philadelphia’s CeaseFire program, which has a reentry component.

As we help communities build – and expand – their capacity to serve returning individuals, we’re trying to learn more about what works. The Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance supports the National Reentry Resource Center, which provides comprehensive information, training, and technical assistance to promote evidence-based best practices in the reentry field. And they’ve recently unveiled a What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse that you’ll hear more about later today.

All of these initiatives are geared toward giving returning inmates a fresh start and an opportunity to contribute to the safety of their communities. The first and most important decision a former inmate can make is to remain crime-free. And as we develop new reentry policies and practices, we need to measure our success by how effective we are at keeping inmates from returning to prison or jail while keeping our communities safe.

To do this, we need to focus on those most likely to offend and target our resources accordingly. We need to adopt approaches that are based in sound science. We need to ensure effective community supervision. We need to deploy our resources to the areas where most crime is committed. And we need to make sure this is done on a holistic and continuous basis. From front end programs that can offer people an off ramp from the repetitive cycle of drug abuse, crime and prison, to programs in prison like RDAP, Challenge, and others that are designed to deal with the causes of people getting into prison in the first place. We need to ensure the effective use of residential reentry centers and the services they provide for those who need to practice what they've learned in the prison programs. And we value and appreciate the involvement of reentry courts and probation officers to make sure that progress is sustained while formerly incarcerated individuals are living in the community.

We are trying to embed these principles in both our Second Chance and our Justice Reinvestment initiatives. As will be discussed this afternoon during the Justice Reinvestment Panel, Justice Reinvestment is a partnership that brings together policymakers, legislators, and researchers to analyze criminal justice policies and determine how taxpayer dollars can be redirected from costly – and sometimes ineffective – corrections programs to activities that reduce recidivism and prevent crime.

Pennsylvania has been a leader in this effort at both the state and local levels. At the state level, there’s been momentum on this front. Based on the leadership of Governor Corbett, Chief Justice Castille, and legislative leaders, a bipartisan, inter-branch Justice Reinvestment Working Group has been formed to develop a policy framework to improve public safety, reduce recidivism, and manage corrections spending. The efforts thus far are cutting edge – and we look forward to hearing more about their outcomes.

At the local level, Allegheny County is implementing strategies to address the “drivers” of its corrections population. And Justice Reinvestment efforts are taking shape in other states too -- from Arizona to Vermont, and in Oklahoma, Hawaii, and Texas. Our work – across party lines and across disciplinary and jurisdictional boundaries – is paying off. But we must continue to build on this momentum, making recidivism reduction a primary goal and responsibility – whether you are a judge, corrections administrator, a prosecutor, a probation officer, or a reentry services provider. The safety of our communities is paramount.

As we continue to work with reentry projects and learn about them, we realize more and more that they need to be sustained and continuous if they are to be successful. They need to start the first day an individual arrives at the prison. The process needs to be nurtured while the individuals are incarcerated by having programs to deal with drug addiction, mental health issues, and basic job and life skills that will give them a fighting chance when they are released. After they are released, whether it is in a transitional setting or when they are living fully in the community, there needs to be follow up to support what they learned and achieved in the prison programs.

It takes all of this, from all of you, if we are to have any hope of being successful. And I say to you, we have to be successful. It is too important to the safety of our communities to not be successful. It is too important to the economic health of our government budgets to not be successful. We have too much riding on this to let it fail.

But it is meetings like this and people like you that tell me we will not fail. We are on the right track. We have a lot of work yet to do and we still have a lot to learn about how to do it better. But we have started. We have taken the important first step of recognizing the problem and understanding how to deal with it. And on behalf of a nation that very much needs these types of solutions, I thank you for all you are doing.