Skip to main content

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at the Justice Department's Second Chance Event


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Delivered

Good morning. Thank you so much for the kind introduction, and thank you for your leadership, your advocacy and the work that you do every day as our pardon attorney.

By some estimates there are almost two million people in federal, state and Tribal prisons and jails, including juvenile correctional facilities and immigration detention facilities at this time. And we know that people of color are disproportionately represented in our nation’s prisons and jails: Latinx people are incarcerated at a rate double the rate of white people; Native Americans are incarcerated at rates nearly four times that of white people; and Black people are incarcerated at almost five times the rate of white people. Because of these stark disparities, clemency is a powerful tool for racial justice and economic justice. Acts of clemency not only acknowledge the disparities and injustices of the past but allow us to take meaningful steps to rectify them. Executive clemency can address outdated federal criminal policies, particularly those that disproportionately caused harm to communities of color, such as through President Biden’s recent full presidential pardon of federal and D.C. convictions for simple marijuana possession offenses.

We must also confront the systemic barriers to people who have criminal convictions or people who have been incarcerated. When someone who has served time reintegrates into their communities, they often experience discrimination in housing, voting, employment and other areas. A criminal record can prevent someone from landing a steady job, enrolling in the military, having a safe place to live, accessing quality health care or having the chance to go to back school. It can keep them from ever getting a loan to buy a home, start a business or build a future. It can bar them from voting. As a result, three-quarters of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed a year after their release – and joblessness is a top predictor of recidivism.

And these issues are frequently compounding for Black and Brown people and other people of color. Our work at the Civil Rights Division serves as a complement to the essential work of the Office of the Pardon Attorney. We strive every day to fight back against discrimination and seek to make our criminal legal systems more just and equitable. Just yesterday, for instance, the Civil Rights Division, along with the Office of Justice Programs and the Office for Access to Justice, released a Dear Colleague Letter addressing the imposition of fines and fees by state and local courts, including juvenile court systems. This letter outlines the way that low-income people, particularly people of color and youth, are severely impacted by harsh and compounding fines and fees imposed by courts and encouraged court leaders to take steps necessary to eliminate the use of unnecessary and discriminatory fines and fees.

We also seek to vigorously use our federal civil rights laws to address discrimination that occurs at the intersection of the criminal legal system. This past December we settled a lawsuit with a California city that enacted a so-called “crime free” ordinance. And one element of this program required landlords to evict people that had reportedly engaged in “criminal activity” on or near the rental property. The program required eviction even if that activity did not result in an arrest or a charge or a conviction. The Civil Rights Division will continue to fight discriminatory and unlawful “crime-free” ordinances across the country and work to ensure that everyone has fair and equal access to housing. Our federal civil rights laws protect all of us, regardless of whether you have been accused of a crime or served time.

Today, we rightly center the voices of those who have received a second chance, the second chance they so rightly deserve. I am honored to be with you today, and I look forward to hearing and learning from you all. Thank you so much.

Civil Rights
Updated April 21, 2023