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Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at “The Case for Second Chances: A Conversation About Criminal Justice, Collateral Consequences and Clemency”


Washington, DC
United States

Good morning! I’m very sorry I can't be with you in person in the Great Hall today, but I didn't want to miss out on the opportunity to participate in this incredible event. I want to thank the Office of the Pardon Attorney and the Pardon Attorney herself, Liz Oyer, for inviting me to be part of this.

Clemency is a powerful tool. My first case, in my first job out of law school, resulted in the then-Texas Governor granting 35 pardons in 2003 to my clients, men and women who were wrongfully convicted in a small town called Tulia. To say those pardons changed their lives would not even begin to describe it. But I also was all too aware of how challenging it was for each person to navigate reintegrating back into their communities. I carried their stories with me many years later when I worked with the Office of the Pardon Attorney in 2014, before I joined the Justice Department the first time, through the Obama Administration's Clemency Initiative.

I want to recognize and thank Liz and her entire office for the important work they are doing, not just on pardons and the clemency process, but also in bringing awareness to issues like collateral consequences and the ways in which a criminal conviction or incarceration can follow a person, sometimes for the rest of their life.

This conversation is an important one. I am proud to be part of a Justice Department that prioritizes engaging with and hearing from people who have experienced the justice system firsthand, either themselves or through loved ones. The perspectives of justice-impacted people are important for us to lift up at events like this and for us to listen to as we consider and evaluate policies and programs. Thank you to our panelists for sharing not only your stories, but your insights and recommendations.

The thing is, justice-impacted individuals - those who have been arrested, incarcerated, or come into contact with the justice system - are not a small group. In America today, as many as one in three people have a criminal record, an estimated 70 to 100 million people nationwide. By some estimates, a similar percentage of American children (one in three) have at least one parent with a criminal record. And in 2020, almost 550,000 people returned to the community from state and federal prisons, while millions more cycled through local jails.

Every one of those people is affected by collateral consequences. They might be excluded from certain jobs because of a criminal record, or unable to keep their family under one roof because of a family member's past conviction or unable to obtain necessary medications upon release from prison or jail, exacerbating existing health challenges and deepening cycles of poverty. Collateral consequences present huge challenges precisely because they affect the essential parts of our daily lives-housing, employment, food, healthcare, and more. And they have long-lasting, multi-generational impacts: a parent misses prime wage-earning years to incarceration and then struggles to get a job after returning home, making it difficult to provide for their family, and increasing the likelihood their children grow up in entrenched poverty.

The effects go beyond directly impacted individuals and their immediate families. These losses multiply within some communities, with disproportionate impacts on communities of color. The Brennan Center estimates $372.3 billion, that's with a b-in lost earnings annually from those impacted by a criminal conviction or past imprisonment. And when an employer doesn't hire someone based solely on their past, we all lose out on the insights, perspectives and talents that person might bring to the job, and we also lose the chance to get to know and work with them as a colleague.

The Justice Department believes in second chances. We believe in supporting reentry and easing unnecessary barriers. 

We are committed to working with our federal agency partners, because reentry is not just a criminal justice-system issue. Last year, in the very room you are sitting in, the Office for Access to Justice, with the support of my office, put on a “reentry simulation” for a group of federal employees from agencies across the government. The goal of the simulation is to help those who have never experienced collateral consequences get a glimpse of what those first days and weeks home are like. Participants are assigned an identity and a long list of tasks to complete, but they are hobbled by transportation issues and court dates, difficulties compiling necessary paperwork, and more. It was eye opening, to say the least.

We have carried forward that spirit of cross-government collaboration. The Executive Order on “Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety” established the Federal Interagency Alternatives and Reentry Committee, with three goals: (1) safely reducing unnecessary criminal justice interactions; (2) supporting rehabilitation during incarceration; and (3) facilitating reentry into society of people with criminal records. As part of our interagency work, this past spring the Justice Department released a strategic plan, “Rehabilitation, Reentry and Reaffirming Trust,” in which we lay out our current work and our plans in those three areas. I want to highlight a few aspects of that plan today.

One of the things I am proudest of is our ongoing work around fines and fees. In April, I announced an updated Dear Colleague letter aimed at helping state and local courts and judges guard against unlawful fines and fees practices. We outlined relevant case law around fees for both adults and juveniles and cautioned against racially discriminatory enforcement of fines and fees. We also emphasized that in many cases, unaffordable fines and fees may undermine public safety, instead impeding successful reentry, increasing recidivism and weakening community trust in government.

Many leaders, at all levels of government, have taken steps to address those unintended consequences. After we published our letter this spring, I asked our Office for Access to Justice to prepare a best practices guide-which we expect to publish in the coming weeks-building on the recommendations in the letter and shining a spotlight on innovative work by states, municipalities, juvenile justice agencies, and court leaders. 

On the health care front, we know what a lifeline Medicaid can be, and how critical it is to have continuity of care, including when leaving incarceration. We are working with our colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services to raise awareness and support states, through both grants and technical assistance, in implementing the Medicaid 1115 Reentry Demonstration Waiver, a new opportunity for states to improve care transitions for certain individuals nearing release from incarceration. 

We are also funding other efforts at the state and local level. Last year we awarded nearly $100 million in grants to support successful reentry and reduce recidivism, including funding to improve correctional education and employment programs both during incarceration and after, and to address treatment and recovery needs of individuals with mental health, substance use, or co-occurring disorders. We will be announcing FY23 awards soon and expect to continue to support efforts to address challenges faced by individuals currently or previously involved in the criminal justice system.

In addition to supporting our state and local partners, we are looking at what we can do inside the Department.

The Pardon Office, for example, is working with the Office for Access to Justice to make the clemency process more accessible by simplifying and streamlining the pardon application form. Doing so will help applicants in the process, and we hope encourage more people to apply for pardons.

We are also addressing barriers to securing government-issued identification upon release from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). An ID is so often a pre-requisite to housing, employment and other essentials. BOP is developing a Release Identification Card that individuals can use to obtain a state-issued ID, and is consulting with the Department of Homeland Security to develop a “Release Folder” containing official documents necessary to obtain a REAL ID-compliant identification.

And finally, I want to give a shout out to the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and its two “Second Chance Fellows,” Angel Sanchez and John Bae. Through the Fellows program, OJP brings in formerly incarcerated individuals with significant reentry policy and practice expertise. Both Angel and John have made significant contributions during their time with us, with Angel working on Pell grant reinstatement with the Department of Education and John working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to review their policies with an eye towards ensuring they are not unduly harsh for individuals with criminal records. We look forward to welcoming two new Fellows in the coming year.

I will close by thanking all of you for coming to the Justice Department today for this conversation. Your work and presence inspire us to do more to support second chances and build healthy and safe communities.

Thank you.

Updated September 22, 2023