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Assistant Attorney General Laurie O. Robinson Speaks at the International Community Corrections Association Annual Meeting


Cincinnati, OH
United States

Thank you so much, Jim [Lawrence], and I’m just delighted to be here with all of you.

Let me say at the outset how honored I am to be placed among the many distinguished past recipients of this award – and I’m humbled to have my name connected with the extraordinary woman in whose honor this award is given.

Margaret Mead made a lifetime of traveling to unvisited lands and recording her meticulous observations. But her goal wasn’t simply to accumulate data. It was to make that information useful. As she once told a colleague, “I care about my work for what it may mean in the world.”

I think that’s why all of us here are in the field we’re in and doing the work we do – because we want to make a difference in the world.

My roots in community corrections are deep, and I’ve been very fortunate in my associations. I’ve had the privilege of working with pioneers like Pat Wald, now a retired judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. and a national leader on issues like bail reform and female offenders; the late Dan Freed, a long-time Yale law professor who helped open the door to exploring alternatives to incarceration and an early promoter of sentencing reform, and Jim Bennett, a former Federal Bureau of Prisons Director who I had the pleasure of working with when I was a staff member at the American Bar Association’s Section of Criminal Justice.

These were some of my early mentors, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to work with such visionaries in criminal justice.

When I joined the Department of Justice for the first time in 1993, I actually came to work on sentencing reform issues in the Deputy Attorney General’s Office. Before coming on board, I was also asked to be OJP’s Acting Assistant Attorney General. But that interest in, and commitment to, sentencing and corrections issues has always remained, and I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to continue my work to support the corrections field from my perch in OJP.

I see the challenges facing the corrections field today and I reflect on how our views about punishment and rehabilitation have changed. For instance, we know now that the speed and certainty of sentencing matters more than severity. We understand the value of early assessment of risks and needs. We’ve learned these things not just through trial and error, but through rigorous research.

And I see us at an important crossroads today – one where ideology has taken a back seat, and science and pragmatism have come to the fore.

Our base of knowledge has grown considerably in recent years. Evidence has become our lodestar, and I’ve watched with pride as practitioners, policymakers, and politicians have turned to science for answers. And our need for answers has never been greater.

Few of us could have predicted 20 years ago that we’d be facing the kind of challenges we now confront – you know these facts as well: 2.3 million people in our nation’s prisons and 1 in 32 American adults under some form of correctional supervision. And state spending on corrections has risen faster than almost all other budget items, topping $68 billion annually.

The situation has become dire – there’s no question – and states are figuring out that they need to do something about their prison challenges. In 2010, our Bureau of Justice Statistics reported the first decline in the overall state prison population since 1977. And just last month, the Sentencing Project released a report showing that, in 2011, at least 13 states have closed prison institutions – or are considering doing so.

These are momentous developments, especially considering the rush to lock away offenders we witnessed two decades ago.

What’s encouraging is that in a number of cases, these reductions aren’t just fiscally expedient measures designed to bring down costs. They’re actually part of a broad strategic approach to public safety.

I’m sure all of you are aware of the national movement called Justice Reinvestment. We in the U.S. Department of Justice – up to Attorney General Holder – are strong supporters.

Justice Reinvestment is an unprecedented bipartisan effort through which legislators and policymakers come together to determine how to reallocate resources to both save money and reduce recidivism. At base, it’s about achieving public safety in a more sensible way. It represents, in my view – coming from a number of decades in criminal justice – a seismic shift in our philosophy of crime and justice – and one that’s long overdue.

My agency’s Bureau of Justice Assistance – BJA – working with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Pew Center on the States, and other groups, is supporting several Justice Reinvestment efforts, including one right here in Ohio, which I know you heard about yesterday from State Senator Seitz.

And there are other great examples.

To take just one, the Kentucky General Assembly recently enacted legislation, based on a Justice Reinvestment analysis, that reserves prison beds for the most serious offenders and re-focuses resources on community supervision, their probation and parole systems, and evidence-based programs.

The state is projected to reduce its prison population by more than 3,000 inmates over the next 10 years and save some $422 million as a result of the new law. That would be an extraordinary turn of events for a state with one of the fastest growing prison populations and prison budgets in the entire nation.

Kentucky is one of several states that have re-examined their corrections and sentencing policies. I know Ohio has been part of this effort, as well. Gary Mohr, Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, is proposing, as you may well know, a major reorganization of the state’s system to orient it around reentry. I’m very impressed by the imaginative ideas I’ve seen that Gary has proposed, and I truly wish him well.

It’s wonderful to see this creative energy and innovative spirit applied to our corrections challenges, not only at the local and state levels, but also at the federal level.

The good fortune I’ve had in my associations continues at the Department of Justice, working for an Attorney General in Eric Holder who understands these issues and is leading the Justice Department in effecting meaningful change.

In January, Attorney General Holder convened the first meeting of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council. This is a high-level group of eight Cabinet officials – and many other agency heads across government – working to coordinate federal resources related to reentry. In my experience, this Council is just unprecedented, and the group’s first meeting in January – with seven of those eight Cabinet members sitting around Eric Holder’s conference table – was one of the best meetings I’ve ever attended in my career!

One of the Council’s objectives is to clarify federal laws and policies that affect returning offenders and that are often misapplied, jeopardizing successful reentry. Through a working group that staffs the Council, led by Amy Solomon and Marlene Beckman of my staff, we’ve published a series of 14 “MythBusters” covering everything from public housing access regulations to the reinstatement of social security benefits – with more on the way. I’m immensely proud of the work Marlene and Amy are doing.

It’s also rewarding for me to have a hand in administering the Second Chance Act, another product of bipartisan cooperation. Having been privy to the very partisan debates of the 80s and 90s, I continue to be amazed at the way this piece of legislation has brought together lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to deal with the challenges of reentry. There are now some 250 programs across the country supported by Second Chance, which is just great.

For those of us who’ve been in this field as long as I have, this cooperative spirit is something to celebrate. But equally impressive – and for me, personally, even more satisfying – is the trend toward evidence-informed programming and policymaking. This has been a long-held interest and priority of mine, going back to my days with Penn’s Criminology Department.

When I was at Penn, I testified back in 2007 before Congress about the need for a “What Works” Clearinghouse to help spread knowledge about effective programs and practices in our field. In June, I was proud to announce with the Attorney General the launch of, a new Justice Department Web site with information on scores of justice-related programs, each accompanied by an evidence rating, based on available research.

This is a practical tool – my long wished-for clearinghouse – for helping translate research for practitioners and policymakers, and I’ve been delighted by the response so far.

So our progress, I think, has been good. We’re building our evidence base – getting information out to the people who need it – and we’re directing our focus on community safety rather than on narrow agency goals. But, as I see it, a number of challenges remain – five that I’ll briefly set out for you today.

For one, we need to maintain our momentum. Everybody says pursuing “what works” is the best course in these lean economic times. After all, with limited budgets, why would we squander money on programs that aren’t effective? But it’s often in tough times that we see the greatest resistance to innovation, with people wanting to fall back on the familiar. We should guard against that. Yes, innovation is hard work, but it does pay off in the long run.

Second, we need to do more than pay lip service to collaboration. In an age of depleted resources, we literally can’t afford to shoulder the burden ourselves. We need our partners. For you in community corrections, this means going beyond the narrow focus of our individual responsibilities and thinking in terms of a broader offender management strategy. Go the extra mile to build bridges with potential allies like law enforcement, prosecutors, defense counsel, treatment providers, victim advocates, and the list goes on.

Third, we need to keep in mind that the work on evidence-based innovation is not a sport for the short-winded. There will be distractions, new “flavors of the month” by future federal or private funders, but a focus on science-based approaches needs to be the guiding light for our field over the longer term.

Fourth, we still need to strengthen relationships between the researcher and practitioner communities. I think we’ve come a long way toward bridging the gap between research and practice, but we still have miles to go. Much of the research we have is still published only in academic journals and written for other researchers. We need to expand this dialogue.

We’re trying to do our part at OJP. Our National Institute of Justice, under the direction of John Laub – who shares my enthusiasm about this – has a project specifically designed to bring these two groups together. And BJA is also reaching out to draw academics into its work with practitioners.

Fifth – and I touched on this earlier when I talked about – we need to do a better job of getting the knowledge we do have out to the field. This has become a very personal mission of mine, something about which I’m very determined – although my husband would quibble with my choice of words. He’d say I’m not determined, but, in fact, quite stubborn.

So these are some of the challenges as I see them – in the community corrections field, and in the field of criminal justice more broadly. They’re different challenges than ones I probably would have proposed 15 years ago during my first tenure as Assistant Attorney General. Then, for example, very few people outside the community corrections arena knew much about reentry. My old friend and colleague, Jeremy Travis, who was heading NIJ back then, was just bringing the term “reentry” into our lexicon. We’ve certainly come a long way since then.

Now, thanks to ICCA and to professionals like all of you, we have tools and insights that can help us meet the challenges ahead.

I’m proud and humbled to have had a small role in helping advance our field. And I think we should all be proud of the way we’ve helped to change the landscape of criminal justice – making our work vital to a safe and just world.

So thank you for the opportunity to be here and, again, I am immensely grateful for this award.

Updated September 17, 2014