Justice News

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Speaks at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio Reentry Conference
Cleveland, OH
United States
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Monday, June 25, 2012

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

I want to thank Steve and his office for hosting this conference, which I hear has been an excellent forum for sharing information about effective reentry practices. I’d also like to thank the event co-sponsors, Cuyahoga County Community College and the Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry. I want to acknowledge Judge Dan Polster from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio and Judge Charles Brown from the Stark County Court of Common Pleas who have been champions of reentry in this district and state. And I also want to thank Mayor Frank Jackson and Cuyahoga County Executive Edward Fitzgerald for showing their support for this effort by being here earlier today.

I also know that U.S. Senator Rob Portman provided remarks earlier today. Senator Portman has been a champion of the Second Chance Act and a stalwart advocate for effective reentry – in Ohio and around the country.

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 on 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 top priority. We are working on all fronts – and across many agencies – to promote viable reentry programs, explore innovative practices, support research, and expand partnerships. We are addressing reentry from every angle, analyzing how it affects employment, health, education, housing, and family life. And we are working – in Attorney General Holder’s words – to bring effective reentry strategies “from the margins to the mainstream.”

In the Department, our U.S. Attorneys have played a key part in this effort. Last January I sent a memorandum to all US Attorneys reversing an old Department policy that discouraged involvement in reentry programs. Now, all U.S. Attorneys Offices are expressly told to get involved in reentry courts and other programs that are viable. 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. And we’ve encouraged U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to participate in reentry courts and programs across the country. To that end, last year we issued a Reentry Toolkit for U.S. Attorneys that highlights some of the important work going on in many districts, like the Successful Transitions – Accelerated Reentry Program or STAR Reentry Court here in the Northern District of Ohio. And I understand the District is also involved in the STANCE program (Stand Together Against Neighborhood Crime Everyday) – which provides a framework for community and law enforcement collaboration, and focuses on strategies for prevention, intervention and reentry for inner-city youth. As a result of the STANCE program, crime in target areas plagued by high poverty rates, low high school graduation rates, and high unemployment have been dramatically reduced. I commend Steve for his firm commitment to reentry. Here in Ohio – and in jurisdictions across the country – our U.S. Attorneys are working closely with their state and local partners to make effective reentry a reality.

And the Bureau of Prisons continues to do its part, providing treatment and programs and services at its 117 federal prisons across the country, including at the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution, right here in Ohio. Using an evidence based approach that targets offenders 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 implemented based on evidence of their success.

As prisoners finish their sentences, we are working on targeting the ones with higher risks and higher 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 we have begun working with the Sentencing Commission and the Administrative Office of United States Courts to review the circumstances under which persons proposed for a supervised release revocation have been returned to federal prison. Innovative work from across the country regarding supervision violators suggests there may be opportunities for public safety improvement and cost savings in this.

The Attorney General chairs a Federal Interagency Reentry Council composed of 20 federal agencies – bringing together cabinet officials and other leaders across the Obama Administration 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.

One of the Council’s many accomplishments has been the reduction of employment barriers for those with a criminal record. We know that stable employment is one of the keys to successful reentry, so we’re working to find ways to make sure our policies improve, rather than hinder, job access. Our partners at the Department of Labor have provided both tax credits and federal bonding protection for employers who hire people with a criminal record. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently released guidance that discourages employers from denying jobs to applicants with criminal records if the record is unrelated to the job being considered.

Just last month, the Department of Labor also issued guidance to the public workforce system to ensure the promotion of EEOC and other federal nondiscrimination policies. Additionally, the Reentry Council, through the leadership of the Office of Personnel Management, is developing a best practices guide in federal hiring.  This document will concentrate on best practices for federal contractors, whose companies employ more than 20% of U.S. workers.

Housing is another basic need that formerly incarcerated individuals are often denied. The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, sent a letter to executive directors of every public housing authority and HUD subsidized owners reminding them that people who have served their time should not be denied access if they do not fall into a prohibited category.

As part of the Council’s work, we have published a series of what we call “MythBusters” to correct misinformation that often unfairly penalizes formerly incarcerated individuals. We’re also exploring ways that we can limit the impact of collateral consequences, whether they come about from misinterpreted policies or are sanctioned by law. An American Bar Association study funded by our National Institute of Justice found that there are some 38,000 laws in states across the country that impose collateral consequences. But, while several of these laws serve legitimate public safety goals, some may be strictly punitive measures that only make it more difficult for someone to make a fresh start.

The Attorney General sent a letter to all state attorneys general asking them to review these laws in their states. Ohio, you are pioneers on this front, with state legislators, judges, prosecutors, and criminal justice professionals all working together to evaluate laws and policies that impose collateral consequences on those with felony convictions. I understand you have developed a set of recommendations that have been included in a bill coined the “redemption bill” and that the bill was passed overwhelmingly by the Ohio General Assembly. Thank you for leading the way.

We’ve also called upon federal agencies to conduct a similar analysis - to identify any unintended consequences imposed by federal regulations. At the Department of Justice, we’re taking a close look at our own regulations. And based on our findings, we – as well as our federal counterparts across other agencies – hope to take necessary action as appropriate.

And as we work to remove barriers to successful reentry, we are supporting you – our state and local partners – in your critical efforts to make effective reentry a reality. Under the Second Chance Act, we have funded more than 370 adult and juvenile reentry programs across the nation. With more than $208 million over the last three years, these programs are doing exciting work. For example, here in Cuyahoga County, Second Chance funding is supporting a specialized treatment and reentry program called Project RESTORE, which assists adults with mental health and co-occurring substance abuse disorders. A separate Second Chance grant supports a comprehensive partnership with local and community-based organizations that targets five Cleveland neighborhoods. These and other Second Chance grants are helping Ohio communities reduce recidivism and improve reentry outcomes.

And 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. They recently unveiled a What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse. I know that this resource will be essential to driving forward our efforts in this important work.

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 policies and practices, we should make that objective our top priority. 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.

So how do we 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 an offer people an off ramp from the repetitive cycle of drug abuse, crime and prison, to programs in prison like RDAP, the Challenge program, and others that are designed to deal with the challenges that put these people in prison in the first place, to the effective use of residential reentry centers and their programs for those who really need them to get a the support they need to practice what they've learned in the prison programs, and to the involvement of reentry courts and probation officers to make sure that progress is sustained while living in the community.

We are trying to embed these principles in both our Second Change and our Justice Reinvestment initiatives. As you may have heard earlier in the day, Justice Reinvestment is a federal, state, and local partnership that brings together policymakers, legislators, and researchers to analyze criminal justice policies and determine how taxpayer dollars can be redirected from costly – and often ineffective – corrections programs to activities that reduce recidivism and prevent crime.

Ohio has been a leader in this effort. Policymakers developed a 13-point framework that established statewide standards for probation and ensured an even quality in community supervision from county to county. The General Assembly incorporated the recommendations in legislation that focuses on risk assessment, community supervision, and treatment targeted at offenders who need it most.

The law passed with sweeping bipartisan majorities, and it was signed into law by Governor Kasich. And it is estimated to halt the growth of the prison population and to save about half a billion dollars in prison spending. We are impressed by what you’ve accomplished and look forward to tracking your progress in the months and years ahead.

Justice Reinvestment efforts are taking shape in other states too -- from Arizona to Vermont, and in Oklahoma, Hawaii, and Texas. And Justice Reinvestment has enjoyed broad bipartisan support.

Our work – across party lines and across disciplinary and jurisdictional boundaries – is paying off.

We must continue to build on this momentum, making recidivism reduction our 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.

I am grateful for the work that each of you has done – and will continue to do – to help the formerly incarcerated reintegrate and become productive members of our communities. You have taken on a considerable challenge, and it is one that will require vigilance, resourcefulness, and dedication to address. But you are not alone. You have allies nearby and across the country, and you have a committed partner in the Department of Justice.

I’m gratified about all that we’ve accomplished so far, but I'm not satisfied. I look forward to building upon and improving this critical work together in the upcoming months and beyond.