Significant Speeches

Remarks of the Honorable David J. Hickton
United States Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania
At the University of Pittsburgh School of Law
Southwestern PA Reentry Conference

University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA
September 28, 2012

Thank you Rich for that warm and generous introduction.

It is great to be back here at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law where I not only obtained a first rate legal education, but met my wife, Dawne, who I am proud to say is often described as one of the greatest students ever and one of the most distinguished graduates this fine institution has ever produced.

I also want to thank the University for hosting this Conference and publicly welcome the new Dean, Chip Carter, to his exciting new responsibilities.

The importance of the work you are doing today cannot be overstated. If we are serious about making our communities safer and affording real opportunities for people to select the right path in life, good reentry work is vital.

The Obama Administration and the Department of Justice under Attorney General Eric Holder 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 the issue from every angle, analyzing how reentry affects employment, health, education, housing, and family life.

U.S. Attorneys have been central to the Department's work in Reentry. Each of us are working closely with state and local partners to make effective reentry a reality. The Department's Anti-Violence Strategy, which is led by the U.S. Attorneys, prioritizes reentry as one of its three principal components, along with prevention and enforcement.

The urgency of reentry and reducing recidivism has been tied to the growing and very large U. S. prison population and the numbers of 3 returning offenders. 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. When reentry fails, the costs-both societal and economic-are high. More than two-thirds of state prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release and close to half are reincarcerated. High rates of recidivism mean more crime, more victims and more pressure on an already overburdened criminal justice system.

In the past 20 years, state spending on corrections has grown at a faster rate than nearly any other state budget item. The United States now spends more than $74 billion annually on federal, state and local corrections. 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. We cannot build and spend our way to safer communities.

The Federal Interagency Reentry Council, established by Attorney General Holder in January 2011, coordinates reentry efforts and advances effective reentry policies across 20 federal agencies. The Council is working towards a mission to:

  1. Make communities safer by reducing recidivism and victimization;
  2. Assist those who return from prison and jail in becoming productive citizens; and
  3. Save taxpayer dollars by lowering the direct and collateral costs of incarceration.

A chief focus of the Reentry Council is to remove federal barriers to successful reentry, so that motivated individuals - who have served their time and paid their debts - are able to compete for a job, attain stable housing, support their children and their families, and contribute to their communities.

We need more education and understanding about what reentry is and what it is not. For example, many employers mistakenly believe that an arrest or conviction automatically bars individuals from employment. If an employer is aware of a conviction or incarceration, that information should only bar someone from employment when the conviction is closely related to the job. The employer should consider the nature of the job; the nature and seriousness of the offense; and the length of time since it occurred.

Another misconception is that a veteran with criminal convictions or a history of incarceration is not eligible for VA health care. An eligible veteran, who is not currently incarcerated, can access VA health care regardless of any criminal history, including incarceration. Only when an otherwise eligible veteran is currently incarcerated, or in fugitive felon status, is he or she ineligible for VA health care. Veterans, in particular, need access to every available service as they rebuild their lives and contend with the mental health challenges that can flow from their service.

Many people believe eligibility for Social Security benefits cannot be reinstated when an individual is released from incarceration. While Social Security benefits are not payable if an individual is convicted of a criminal offense and confined, monthly benefits can be reinstated after a period of incarceration.

Two more common misconceptions are that a person with a criminal record is not eligible to receive any student financial aid and that incarceration changes an individual's obligation to pay taxes and tax debts and prohibits the receipt of tax credits and deductions upon release.

Individuals currently incarcerated in a federal, state or local correctional facility have some limited eligibility for federal student aid, such as being ineligible to receive a Federal Pell Grant or federal student loans.

Depending on the nature of the offense, restrictions on federal student aid eligibility are generally removed for formerly incarcerated individuals, including those on probation, parole or residing in a halfway house. An incarcerated individual may even apply for financial aid in anticipation of being released so that the aid is processed in time for the start of school.

I am sure that my friends at the Internal Revenue Service would like to clarify that incarceration does not halt one's obligation to pay taxes nor does it halt the accumulation of federal tax debts. Collection of tax debts does not stop automatically upon incarceration, and individuals who are unable to pay their tax debts should contact the IRS. Collection may be delayed until the individual's financial condition improves, but the delay will increase the tax debt as penalties and interest are still charged until full payment is made.

After release from incarceration, a felony conviction does not bar an individual from receiving tax credits or deductions on their tax returns.

These misconceptions demonstrate that we face significant challenges in ensuring the safe and effective reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals.

Reentrants to society should be able to address every lawful tool to rebuild their lives. At the same time, no one is proposing that reentrants get undue benefits.

The issues are complex and the stakes are high. The key to responding to these challenges lies in working together and fighting a dedicated and determined fight on all levels.

One effective tool is a reentry court. Reentry courts are in operation in 56 federal districts. As many of you may know, reentry courts are a form of heightened supervised release that combines significantly increased judicial oversight and in-court hearings with the collaborative efforts of the Probation Office, the USAO, the Federal Defender's Office, and contract treatment and/or service providers.

Reentry court activities generally include:

  • A review of the participant's status and progress by the collaborative reentry team;
  • Periodic in-court hearings or meetings during which participants speak directly to the judge, in front of all other participants, about their own progress and the challenges they are facing. This group dynamic has proven very effective in criminal justice settings;
  • Use of various treatment and reintegration programs designed to help participants understand and improve their behavior;
  • Use of drug and alcohol testing and other checks to monitor compliance;
  • Applying graduated sanctions to offenders who do not comply with treatment requirements; and
  • Providing modest incentive rewards for sustained clean drug tests and other positive behaviors.

Studies show that reentry courts reduce recidivism. An Eastern District of Pennsylvania study found that only 10 percent of reentry court graduates were re-arrested during the 18 month study period, compared to 31 percent of the control group. In Massachusetts, program graduates studied were re-arrested at a 20 percent lower rate than comparison offenders. The Massachusetts study also found that program graduates had better overall outcomes as to employment rates than the comparison group.

In the Western District of Pennsylvania, our reentry court is RISE or Reentry Into Society Effort, and was initiated in 2010. RISE is a collaborative effort involving the Probation Office, the Federal Public Defender, the judiciary and the U. S. Attorney's Office to assist individuals under federal court supervision who are at a higher risk of recidivism become responsible citizens. This voluntary, 52-week program links participants to educational and literacy programs, employment and vocational and skills training, family counseling, healthcare and housing services, and mental health and substance abuse treatment. Participants are initially subjected to an intense regimen of treatment and frequent drug testing. Each participant must attend regularly scheduled RISE Program court sessions to report on their progress in the program and demonstrate accountability to their peers and to the court. Participants who fail to abide by the terms of the program face graduated sanctions.

Upon successful completion and graduation from the RISE program, participants are returned to traditional supervision with a one-year reduction award of their supervised release. Further reductions can be considered on a caseby- case basis for successful participants who remain on supervision after the one-year reduction.

It is too soon to render a full and fair assessment of our RISE Court effort. Intentions are good; the mechanics are there; and the participation from all levels of the system has been exemplary. However, the number of individuals who have progressed through the system is relatively small, and we need to do better.

In May of this year, the Department of Justice held its third Second Chances and Safer Communities Conference. As stated by Attorney General Eric Holder at the conference, our "commitment to being not just smart, but also tough on crime extends to our reentry efforts, and that is reflected in our work with state, local tribal and international partners in developing comprehensive, evidence-based strategies tailored to meet specific community needs."

I am proud to say the same commitment and effort is reflected locally in our District. Programs such as the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative and Federal Workforce Development Initiative are targeted at improving public safety, reducing recidivism and preventing the disintegration of communities and families impacted by crime and incarceration.

The Jail Collaborative has received over $1,300,000 dollars in funding from the federal government and has been identified as one of the most promising programs in the Nation.

The simple inclusion of financial, vocational and family counseling in anticipation of release has replaced the senseless prior practice of abruptly releasing an offender with no tools to survive, often without proper clothing, no housing, no transportation and no hope.

The reentry landscape has been improved by the work of the private sector from employers willing to afford a fighting chance through jobs to labor unions offering education and retraining.

Recently, I taught a class for the U. S. Steelworkers' Green Jobs Training Program on time management and time resolution. This program is a collaboration of the United Steelworkers, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and GTECH Strategies. The program's motto is "Breaking the Chains of Poverty." Men and women from low-income families, many of whom have been in jail or prison, are trained in a number of certification programs relating to green jobs. The programs include Federal OSHA certification; certification in hazardous waste operations and emergency response; weatherization and energy auditing; mold remediation and greenhouse gas reduction. Completion of this program provides these individuals with invaluable skills and knowledge in today’s energy efficient and conservationconscious job market and helps to place them in jobs once they are certified. The training is funded and provided at no cost to the students. This factor alone helps to reduce recidivism by relieving some of the financial pressures of previous offenders which could lead to poor choices and re-offending.

Changing your life is difficult--not everyone succeeds initially. Graduates of reentry programs often represent a dedicated few.

All participants of the Green Jobs program are tested for drugs as the program certifies that its graduates are drug free. Those who are not truly committed to making a change usually wash out during the required drug testing. However, the students I met at previous graduation ceremonies and during the class I recently taught, many of whom have criminal records, were committed and simply wanted a chance to turn their lives around and to provide for themselves and their families in a positive manner.

My own experiences with the Green Jobs program have lifted my spirits and given me hope that we can succeed in this important work.

While reentry work is necessary and important, and it is sensible and practical in our stewardship of our collective responsibilities, stressing reentry is also the right thing to do. We must never give up on individuals or our community. We know that the righteous suffer no failure unless we give up.

I commend SPARC for its work in aligning the agencies necessary for reentry collaboration and realizing the urgency of these efforts. I also commend all of you and each of the agencies involved for your commitment to making reentry work. I pledge that we in the U. S. Attorney's Office will be faithful partners.

Thank you.

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