Department of Justice Seal
Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
Department of Justice Offender Re-Entry Conference
Monday, September 20, 2004

It is a pleasure to join you here in Cleveland for the first Justice Department national conference on offender reentry.

Policymakers across the country are studying and meeting to discuss ways we can help offenders who are leaving prison to re-enter society successfully. For example, I am aware that the Council of State Governments' Re-entry Policy Council will soon be releasing its report and recommendations on transitioning prisoners.

These efforts present every level of the justice community from law enforcement agencies to non-governmental organizations with an opportunity to share proven strategies and to promote the collaboration that will transform communities and change lives.

We know from our experiences in the areas of public safety, as well as welfare and education reform, that often the best ideas do not come from Washington, but from the people who are on the ground who see up close the needs of their communities. Prisoner re-entry is such an issue. I thank you for your focus on this issue and your dedication to the cause of justice.

We have just emerged from a week in which we were reminded of how far America has come in the past three years. Across our nation and in far off corners of the world, we see the power of the human spirit to endure and to triumph.

We have seen tragedy give way to courage, suffering give way to sacrifice, and common loss give way to uncommon resolve. Every day, we are reminded of the fundamental values that define our nation freedom, justice, and the dignity of every person values which today we are defending.

At the Department of Justice, we have been focused for the past three years on protecting the lives and liberty of our citizens from the threat of terrorism. We have done this successfully while also driving down the rate of violent crime in this country to its lowest level in 30 years.

This is not just an opinion or an impression it is a fact, supported by the evidence.

There has not been a major terrorist attack on our homeland in the past three years. Here at home, federal, state and local law enforcement have worked together to take down terrorist cells and operations from Florida to Oregon and from Washington to New York. 361 suspected terrorists and their supporters have been charged since September 11, 2001, and 191 convictions and guilty pleas have been obtained from terrorism investigations.

In the area of violent crime, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported earlier this month that the rate of violent crime is now at its lowest point in the last 30 years. In the past decade violent crime sexual assault, assault, and armed robbery has fallen by 55 percent. Property crime plummeted by 49 percent.

From 2000-2001 to 2002-2003, the rate of violent crime has dropped 14 percent. Specifically, there was a 27 percent drop in sexual assaults, aggravated assaults were down 20 percent, and robberies were down 21 percent.

This historically low level of crime is not limited by class or income level. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the violent crime rate has dropped in every income category by at least 40 percent between 1993 and 2003.

It is not hard to understand why we have continued to see a decrease in the rate of violent crime. More effective policing, aggressive prosecution, and tough sentencing at the federal and state levels are taking the predatory, violent and repeat offenders off the streets. Criminals understand that if they commit a crime, they will do hard time.

Just as critical to our success in keeping the rate of violent crime at historically low levels is ensuring that the men and women who have served their time, and who are released from prisons and jails, will be productive, law-abiding citizens.

We must acknowledge that public safety and the public good does not end with the clang of the prison cell door. For many men and women who are incarcerated, prison time is not the end of the line. More than 90 percent of inmates currently serving time will one day re-enter society. On average, more than 600,000 individuals are now being released from prison each year.

We know that, compared to the general population, former prisoners re-entering communities have serious substance-abuse histories. They suffer from serious physical and mental illness at a much higher rate than the public at large. These prisoners are more poorly educated, and lack the necessary skills and training to get a job. Many returning offenders suffer from a combination of these factors.

We know from long experience that if they cannot find work, or a home, or help, these men and women are much more likely to return to crime and, eventually, return to prison. Studies show that significant numbers of prisoners as many as two-thirds of those released each year will commit a serious offense within three years of their release.

So it goes without saying that re-entry success or failure has implications for public safety and a community's health. Successful re-entry can actually prevent and deter future criminal acts.

Effective re-entry programs also help individuals who have paid a debt to society to return to their communities, to make up for lost ground, and to redeem themselves. A strong and successful re-entry program presents the best opportunity for inmates to become solid citizens upon release. As President Bush has said, "America is the land of second chances, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life."

Prisoner re-entry affects each one of us and must be addressed in a comprehensive and collaborative way. The model for this approach is the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI).

In 2002, the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs announced this unprecedented, coordinated and comprehensive effort to address the needs of both juvenile and adult prison populations of serious, high-risk offenders.

The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI), harnesses the efforts of half of the federal cabinet agencies the departments of Justice, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration. Together, we assist state and local agencies and organizations in all 50 states to draw on more than $120 million in re-entry program funding.

The strength of this initiative, however, is not in the amount of dollars. It is in the three-phase, comprehensive assistance and support services that federal, state and local re-entry programs provide. From the:

... this comprehensive approach ensures that prisoners who serve their time and re-enter society do not do so alone. They return to their families and their communities with the assistance of a network of agencies and individuals who monitor and mentor them on the path toward contributing to society.

One of the many success stories of the re-entry initiative is Fort Wayne, Indiana's Allen County Re-entry Court program.

The Allen County re-entry program was one of the first of its kind in the nation, and is now a national model. Following release from prison, re-entry initiative participants are monitored regularly and re-evaluated by the re-entry court. Participants receive job-training and housing assistance, as well as counseling to meet their needs.

The results are impressive. During the initial two years of the Re-entry Court's operation, offenders in the program had a recidivism rate of approximately half that of inmates released with no supervision. Within the first year, almost 50 percent of re-entry candidates were placed in full time jobs. Just as important, Fort Wayne's citizens have seen a reduction in crime, while gaining a savings of almost $5 million as a result of lower law enforcement, criminal court and parole costs.

To build on the success of the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative, I am pleased to announce today the release of an additional $6.6 million in grant money, which will be available to affiliates of the initiative. As the Fort Wayne re-entry initiative shows, by investing in the future of the lives of the men and women rejoining society, we are achieving a positive return for our communities.

The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative is a critical component to building a truly comprehensive and collaborative re-entry infrastructure. But there is more we can do.

To further strengthen the Justice Department's commitment to prisoner re-entry and to reducing the recidivism rate, I established a Department of Justice Working Group on Prison Re-entry to study our efforts in these areas.

One of the recommendations of the working group was the establishment of prisoner re-entry coordinators in U.S. Attorneys' offices. Through their successful management of such cooperative public safety efforts as Weed and Seed and Project Safe Neighborhoods, our U.S. Attorneys offices have demonstrated an ability to build local coalitions that know their communities and understand how best to serve them.

Today, I am announcing a pilot program that will place prisoner re-entry coordinators in seven offices of U.S. Attorneys throughout the country. One of the positions will be based here in the offices of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.

These coordinators will bring together agencies from all levels of law enforcement, government, support services and community organizations to better serve the needs of prisoners re-entering society.

President Bush has made it a priority of the four-year, $300 million Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative that all community and faith-based organizations be given an equal opportunity to address the challenges and needs of prisoner reentry. The President recognizes that some problems, such as addiction and criminal behavior, require a larger guiding principle to motivate individuals to make changes in lifestyle, behavior and orientation toward crime.

Across the nation, we have seen the transforming power that faith-based and community organizations have on the lives of their neighbors. They recognize the dignity of every citizen and the possibilities of every life, giving people a sense of direction, purpose, and meaning.

By creating coordinated, comprehensive and community-based programs to assist in prisoner re-entry, we are giving them the best chance at a second chance.

We are building safer and stronger communities.

And we are expanding the values of justice, human dignity and freedom for all. Each of these values is critical to our nation's future. But the value that, more than any other, defines our nation is freedom. Freedom is God's gift of significance. Freedom is the ability to make choices, knowing that what we choose has real consequences. It is not freedom from consequence.

This gift of significance - the promise of true freedom - is a gift you and your organizations are giving every day. You are steering men and women with troubled pasts toward a future of personal and civic productivity.

Through a message of hope, men and women who have been told all their lives that freedom means, "Do what you want, or take what you want it will not make a difference," can learn the true meaning of freedom and the full potential of their lives.

For when a man is told his choices are without consequences, he is not being told that he is free. He is being told that he is meaningless.

You are helping to convey that every life is precious. Every life has meaning. And every person has something to contribute to a society that values true freedom, respect for human dignity and justice.

I thank you for your service and for your commitment to freedom and justice.

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