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Acting Associate Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer Delivers Remarks at Access to Justice's Reentry Simulation


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Rina, for that kind introduction. And thank you all for joining us here today. As we celebrate Second Chance month, I am excited to welcome you to this Reentry Simulation — an innovative project that I know will be educational and eye-opening for us all.

I would like to start by expressing my appreciation to those who made today’s event possible:

First, I’d like to thank Director Rachel Rossi and the Office for Access to Justice (ATJ). In the Obama Administration, I worked down the hall from ATJ, when its staff was only eight people. Since its relaunch two years ago, the office has grown exponentially, and it’s inspiring to see the tireless work the ATJ team does every day to expand equity in both the criminal and civil justice systems.

I’d also like to thank Director Collette Peters and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Your work is critically important not only to protecting public safety, but also to helping those who are reentering society navigate their return as successfully as possible.

And to the many leaders and advocates who are participating in and assisting with the Simulation today: we are grateful for your engagement and appreciate the opportunity to learn from your personal experiences navigating reentry.

Last, but by no means least, I am grateful to our many federal agency partners here today. We value your collaboration on these critical issues and appreciate your partnership on all of the work we do together.

The goal of today’s Reentry Simulation is to illustrate the significant obstacles faced by individuals returning from incarceration to the community. The exercise is part of the Department’s broader work to strengthen the safety of our communities, while advancing thoughtful, evidence-informed initiatives and reforms throughout the criminal justice system.

The Department released a strategic plan last April, as part of a whole-of-government strategy that the President set forth in his May 2022 Executive Order. Our strategic plan outlined an ambitious roadmap for achieving three goals: first, safely reducing unnecessary criminal justice interactions; second, supporting rehabilitation during incarceration; and third, facilitating successful reentry for individuals both within the federal justice system and among states and localities nationwide.

Over the past year, the Department has worked diligently to execute that plan. And today I’d like to share some of the meaningful and tangible progress we’ve made over the past year.

First, to advance our goal of safely reducing criminal justice interactions, the Department has supported approaches that reduce the burden on law enforcement and strengthen public safety.

Our Office of Justice Programs has invested more than $17 million in partnerships between law enforcement and health service providers to improve outcomes for individuals with mental health or substance use disorders who come into contact with law enforcement.

We have also awarded over $114 million to problem-solving court programs that divert people with substance use disorders into judicially supervised treatment programs in appropriate cases, with a focus on promoting equity and mitigating disparate outcomes. These diversion and reform efforts help alleviate the burdens on our police, reduce inequity and justice system involvement, and improve public safety.

Second, the Department is supporting state and local correctional partners who are working to implement meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation during incarceration.

We are committed to bridging the gaps in opportunity for those incarcerated within federal correctional facilities, and to supporting our state and local correctional partners as they undertake the critical work of promoting rehabilitation in prisons and jails nationwide. To that end, the Department has provided $23 million in funding for state- and local-level correctional services that expand access to high school equivalent degrees, vocational training, and other certifications. We have helped correctional and educational institutions scale up post-secondary educational opportunities in prisons and take advantage of the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students. And the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) is expanding access to Pell Grants within federal correctional facilities to help incarcerated students earn college credits or a college degree.

The Department has also launched the Jails and Justice Support Center, a national training and technical assistance hub that is currently partnering with jail administrators to help establish safe and humane environments for residents, visitors, and staff.

Third — and most relevant to today’s event — the Department has taken a number of steps to improve reentry outcomes.

We know that successful reentry is critical to reducing recidivism and reducing crime.

That is why the Department has invested almost $70 million in programming for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals at the state, local, and Tribal levels. As part of these investments, the Department has launched a new initiative to fund intermediary organizations that are delivering grants and assistance to community-based reentry service providers.

At the same time, the Department has worked to build awareness of Medicaid demonstration authorities — an opportunity announced last year to help states improve care transitions for certain individuals nearing release from incarceration. As part of those efforts, later this year we will launch a new policy academy for state corrections and Medicaid leaders to educate them about ways of improving health care coverage for individuals returning from incarceration.

What is more, the Department has been working to combat the unlawful barriers that hinder successful reentry. Recognizing that many returning citizens are financially stifled by unlawful fines and fees, last year the Justice Department issued a Dear Colleague Letter that addresses common court-imposed fines and fees practices. That letter cautions state and local courts against practices that may unfairly penalize individuals who are unable to pay or otherwise have a discriminatory effect.

Building on this Dear Colleague letter, the Office for Access to Justice released a report in November highlighting the most common and innovative approaches taking place across the country to reduce reliance on criminal and civil fines and fees. And the Department launched a new initiative to provide training and assistance to help states and localities rethink the use of fines and fees.

That brings us to today’s simulation. In a few minutes, you will have the opportunity to get a glimpse of what it is like to deal with some of the many challenges that individuals face when re-entering society.

To be clear, today’s simulation cannot possibly allow us to fully understand the countless obstacles individuals face when reentering society.

But it will give us a window to think critically about the barriers that returning individuals face, how those barriers relate to one other, and how we can all work together to help individuals overcome those barriers.

One of the many things we know about reentry is that individuals are more likely to succeed when they return to their communities — and less likely to experience incarceration in the future — if they have access to health benefits and other benefits. We hope that today’s simulation will help show how vital it is that individuals learn how to access the benefits to which they are entitled when transitioning out of incarceration.

Access to civil legal services can play an important role in securing these benefits — and those services can start in the carceral setting. To this end, the Office for Access to Justice and Bureau of Prisons have been collaborating on a pilot project that will bring additional civil legal services to federal prisons.

Today, I am pleased to announce the latest product of their hard work: a Medical Legal Partnership we are working on with Texas A&M. This collaboration will bring targeted medical services to help identify individuals incarcerated in FBOP’s facility in Bryan, Texas, who may require additional support when re-entering society.

I want to thank Brook Bell, the Director of Texas A&M’s Medical Legal Partnership Clinic, for being here today and her work to bring this collaboration to fruition.

This innovative Pilot will be part of a larger civil legal services effort that includes a series of empowerment workshops to help incarcerated individuals better understand their rights and allow them to more effectively advocate for themselves on a range of civil legal issues related to family law, debt and financial-related issues, and government benefits.

For a select group of participants identified through the new Medical Legal partnership as needing additional assistance, the pilot will focus on improving their access to disability benefits.

Social Security benefits have been proven to lift more people out of poverty than any other government program. Yet most disability benefit claims are denied at the application stage.  

This Medical Legal Partnership will bring together legal and medical professionals to help better identify the population of incarcerated individuals eligible for these benefits, and to support these individuals in obtaining the benefits for which they are eligible.

We look forward to launching this pilot in the coming months and supporting individuals as they rejoin our communities and are presented with new opportunities for success. And we hope that, by facilitating successful reentry, these efforts will reduce recidivism and improve public safety.

I want to thank you again for being here today, and for joining with us in our efforts to reduce the barriers faced by some of the most vulnerable in our society. All of us have a responsibility to ensure that our criminal justice system not only protects public safety, but also enables individuals to safely and successfully reenter society when their sentences conclude. I am grateful to so many of you here for the work you have done — and continue to do — to carry out that responsibility. And I know that today’s simulation will deepen our understanding of how much important work remains to be done.

I will now turn the floor over to Christina Smith, Deputy Director of Policy for the Office for Access to Justice, who will explain to you how the simulation works.

Access to Justice
Updated April 19, 2024