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Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at ABA Criminal Justice Section Awards Luncheon


Miami, FL
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery 

Thank you, Justin [Bingham], for that warm introduction. Thank you also to Chair-Elect Tina Luongo and the entire ABA Criminal Justice Section for inviting me here today. And congratulations to the honorees for their work to advance equity and public safety for all.

The theme of this year’s conference, Criminal Justice Next: Solutions to Move Equity and Fairness Forward, could not be more timely. George Floyd’s murder and ensuing global racial justice protests, the pandemic, and a rise in violent crime – especially gun violence – have renewed a necessary and urgent conversation in this country about police-community trust, equal justice and public safety.

Equal justice demands a criminal justice system where all people are treated fairly and equitably, and where people can feel safe and protected in their communities. It requires addressing longstanding inequities in our systems of justice. And it demands partnership among a broad set of stakeholders – government officials; law enforcement – including sheriffs, who run most of our country’s local jails; the courts; crime victim organizations; justice-impacted individuals; prosecutors and defense attorneys; nonprofit organizations; and service providers – in recognition that we cannot separate challenges in the justice system from challenges in access to health care, jobs, and education. These challenges have uniquely impacted low-income communities, communities of color, and those with mental health and substance use disorders.

As an agency that includes 115,000+ federal law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, civil rights lawyers, and professionals that administer close to $5 billion in grants to local and state justice systems and community initiatives across the country, we at the Justice Department know we cannot have public safety without trust – trust between the police and the communities they serve and trust that our institutions will push for fairness where it is lacking.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to travel to Miami-Dade County, where a groundbreaking initiative is challenging the more typical criminal justice approach to people with behavioral health disorders and producing impressive public safety and community health outcomes. For too long, our nation’s jails have been warehouses for people with behavioral health disorders, and initiatives like that in Miami-Dade, involving all stakeholders, beg us to be more creative and data-driven to save lives, taxpayer dollars, and precious law enforcement resources for fighting violent crime.

I want to speak today about that inspiring initiative as well as other innovations the Justice Department is learning from and supporting in our shared quest for equity and public safety. 

For years, we have dealt with behavioral health disorders as only a criminal justice problem, expecting law enforcement to intervene using the limited tools of arrest and incarceration, sometimes cycling individuals in and out of our jails countless times. Indeed, our state and local law enforcement partners have repeatedly told us that change is needed because they cannot alone shoulder the responsibility of addressing the needs of people in crisis. People with mental illnesses in the United States are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than they are to be hospitalized. Seventy percent of individuals in our nation’s jails have at least one diagnosed mental illness. And we know that communities of color are more likely to experience disparities in accessing mental health care, but are less likely to be served by diversion and treatment programs. These are problems that cannot, and should not, be solved by the criminal justice system alone.

The seeds of what is now known as the “Miami model” were planted more than two decades ago when state-court judge Steven Leifman visited the Miami-Dade County jail – the largest psychiatric institution in the state of Florida – and saw that the system was simply not working for individuals in crisis or struggling with their mental health.

He launched the Criminal Mental Health Project in 2000, with the goal of diverting individuals accused of misdemeanors who have mental health or substance use disorders from the criminal justice system to community-based treatment and services. The program has since expanded to include individuals arrested for lower-level felonies. 

The Project takes a 360-degree, all-hands-on-deck approach – it's not just an alternative court or a diversion program, it’s a system that requires engagement from a wide spectrum of stakeholders. During my visit this week, I sat down with judges who preside over cases in problem solving courts, talked to peer recovery specialists and health care providers, and toured a new treatment facility with the State’s Attorney. Our team also met with the Miami, Miami Beach, and Miami-Dade police departments, corrections staff, officials from the Florida Department of Children & Families, and the Miami-Dade County Public Defender. In short, we saw the partnerships necessary for equal justice in action, in real-time.

The Project includes both pre-booking and post-booking diversion programs. In the first, the Project has trained 8,000 police officers – for 40+ hours each – to serve on Crisis Intervention Teams responding to calls involving mental health crises. Officers are trained to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness, and to deescalate encounters and respond appropriately, often with mental health professionals alongside. In some cases, this means offering an individual treatment instead of arrest and jail. 

The judges and program administrators were clear about the post-booking diversion program: There is no wrong door for a referral. A friend or family member can request to have a loved one enrolled in the program. They also include a box to check on the arrest form if police officers suspect mental illness and use a screening tool in the jail to assess clinical eligibility for the program. Individuals who qualify get mental health treatment, a peer navigator who helps with food, clothing, and other necessities, and a chance to come out at the end without a conviction on their record. And perhaps most importantly, a person’s support team stays with them for a year after their case is over.

Thanks to these programs, the average daily jail population in Miami-Dade dropped almost 40%, saving the county over $39 million annually, and with no attendant increase in crime.

I also had the opportunity to tour the new – in fact still under construction – Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery, a mental health diversion and treatment facility meant to be a one-stop-shop for individuals with serious mental illnesses involved or at risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. It is not a jail, and it is so much more than a hospital. Even as an active construction site, it is a reflection of a concerted effort to recognize the humanity and dignity of every person who may someday become a patient or resident. It will have 208 beds. There will be a primary care physician and a dentist’s office, alongside intensive psychiatric care, with the aim of meeting all of an individual’s health needs in one place. 

Too often we try the same things over and over and expect different results. The Miami Center envisions a new way to tackle a persistent problem, by recognizing that some individuals in our communities need intensive assistance, and without it, they may simply become repeat players in our criminal justice system, to no productive end. 

The Criminal Mental Health Project has incorporated federal funding made available through the American Rescue Plan, as well as grant funding, including through the Justice Department’s Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program. My visit there, alongside senior leaders at the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, is an example of the two-way conversations we at the Justice Department are having on criminal justice reform and equity issues. While we distribute our grant funds around the country, we are also constantly learning from local innovation that can drive more effective approaches to persistent nationwide problems.

Beyond learning from the Miami model, the Justice Department is also supporting efforts to increase access to mental health services and diversion opportunities.

First, grants. The Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP) recently awarded $12.9 million through our Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program (JMHCP). Since 2006, JMHCP has funded nearly 680 programs across 49 states and two U.S. territories, with the goal of improving cross-system collaboration and responses to people with mental illnesses who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Grantees include states, local governments, and federally recognized Indian tribes looking to reduce incarceration for people with behavioral health needs whenever appropriate, improve connection to care for people who are incarcerated and at the point of reentry, reduce recidivism, and improve public safety and health outcomes. 

Connect and Protect is another grant program specifically designed to help law enforcement and behavioral health agencies work together to improve law enforcement responses to people with behavioral health needs. This includes – as I mentioned is happening in Miami – implementing diversion programs at the point of contact with law enforcement, for example co-responder teams, outreach to unhoused individuals, mobile crisis teams, and crisis intervention teams. In FY22 we gave out $15.4 million in Connect and Protect grants. And we are supporting community and co-responder models in other ways. Last fall I participated in the “Taking the Call” conference, where the Justice Department hosted attendees from all 50 states and around the world to discuss and share promising practices around crisis response, and help inform how we further support communities who want to explore such models going forward.

Beyond grants, our United States Attorneys’ Offices are supporting and participating in specialty and diversion courts across the country. In the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the Strategies that Result in Developing Emotional Stability program, known as “STRIDES,” started as a pilot project over a decade ago. Now permanent, STRIDES is an alternative or “problem-solving” court designed to address the needs of individuals diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illness. The STRIDES case team is comprised of two Magistrate Judges who oversee the program, representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Community Defenders, private defense counsel, U.S. Pretrial Services, and U.S. Probation. Here, again, are the partnerships necessary for equal justice—folks from different parts of the system working together towards better outcomes for individuals and ultimately, for communities.

The District of Utah is home to the nation’s first federal mental health court—Reentry Independence through Sustainable Efforts, or “RISE.” And there too, it is stakeholders across the system that make it work, from different parts of the Justice Department, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Bureau of Prisons, to judges, defense attorneys, and community partners who provide classes and supports to participants and their families. The District of Utah is also home to the first federal veterans court in the nation, a well-regarded drug court, and a tribal court that our Assistant U.S. Attorneys drive 5 hours to get to – a testament to the value they see in that program.

We also use our enforcement authority when necessary. I want to highlight an investigation announced just yesterday by the Civil Rights Division into the State of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, and Oklahoma City Police Department. The investigation will examine whether Oklahoma fails to provide community-based mental health services to people in Oklahoma County, leading to unnecessary admissions to psychiatric facilities and police contact. The investigation will also examine Oklahoma City’s systems for responding to people experiencing behavioral health crises, including through the 911 call center and the Oklahoma City Police Department. 

Our work to promote public safety in our communities and fairness in the justice system extends beyond our efforts on behavioral health innovations. I want to take a minute to broaden the lens a little bit and mention just a few other areas of our work.

I know this group discussed the President’s Executive Order on Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety. I could have filled up my entire allotted time today talking about the 90+ deliverables the EO sets out for the Justice Department – focusing on everything from data collection on use of force; accreditation; policies on body worn cameras, chokeholds, and no-knock warrants; and officer wellness, recruitment and retention. 

One particular provision of the EO establishes a federal Alternatives and Reentry Committee. The “ARC” (as we call it) brings together more than two dozen agencies and offices within the federal government to think creatively about three areas, or pillars: (1) safely reducing unnecessary criminal justice interactions; (2) supporting rehabilitation during incarceration; and (3) facilitating reentry for people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. The ARC responds to calls from law enforcement, local officials, and civil rights advocates for smarter interagency coordination at the federal level, in recognition that we can no longer continue to place social problems solely at the feet of police and ignore the important role that other systems – including housing, labor, education – play in community health and safety.

We are also keenly focused on using our grant programs to support and encourage innovative, locally grown, community-led approaches to fighting violent crime and gun violence. We recently announced investments totaling $100 million to reduce community violence, including new funding dedicated to community violence intervention programs. These programs take a hyper-local, evidence-informed approach, employing credible messengers to work directly in their own communities with individuals at the highest risk of experiencing or perpetuating violence.

And we are supporting these efforts even beyond direct funding, by providing funding and assistance through intermediaries to build the capacity of smaller organizations, offering technical aid to jurisdictions that do not receive federal funding, and investing in research and evaluation to better understand what works to reduce violence.

We also recently announced $57 million in grants to support justice system reforms, racial equity, and efforts to address wrongful convictions. 

That includes $3 million under our new Reimagining Justice initiative, aimed at funding the development and testing of new, innovative approaches to improving community safety and trust. The grantee is a project called “The Newark Public Safety Collaborative: Empowering Community Organizations to Become Co-producers of Public Safety,” which seeks to democratize the use of data and analytics and empower community organizations to become “co-producers” of public safety. The result will be a coordinated response between community-based organizations and law enforcement, working together toward the common goal of public safety and crime prevention. 

To bring things full circle from where I started this afternoon, these grants are an example of our commitment to listen to the field, learn from our state and local partners, and fund and support community-driven solutions.

I want to close by thanking you – for engaging in the important conversations you’ve been having over the past two days and thinking deeply and creatively about equal justice and public safety. We have much urgent work to do to keep our communities safe and build trust and greater fairness in our justice systems. The Justice Department remains tirelessly committed to fulfilling our founding responsibilities to protect our democracy and our communities, to uphold the rule of law, and to ensure equal justice under law. Thank you for your partnership in these efforts.


Updated November 21, 2022