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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the National Symposium on Pretrial Justice


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Mary Lou Leary, for your kind words, for your years of service to the Justice Department, and for the extraordinary leadership that you – and Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson – are providing to the Office of Justice Programs. You and your team have done a great job of bringing so many critical partners together for this symposium.

It’s a privilege to join with top federal officials; members of the bench and of the bar; federal, state, and local law enforcement and corrections officers; jail and prison administrators; victims; prosecutors; former defendants; and advocacy organizations – as we examine, discuss, and – ultimately – work to improve the state of pretrial justice in America.

Your insights and expertise are essential to this work. I want to thank each of you – especially Tim Murray, Judge Truman Morrison, and their colleagues at the Pretrial Justice Institute – for your participation. Like Tim and Judge Morrison, many of you have been on the front lines of efforts to strengthen and reform the pretrial process for decades. And your work has helped to ensure fairness, efficiency, and public safety.

But – as you’ve discussed this morning – we have much more to do. This symposium marks an important step forward in what I know – and what I pledge – will be an ongoing conversation about how we can achieve safe and fair pretrial release and diversion practices in our communities – and, in so doing, make our justice system both more effective and more efficient.

As extraordinary as this gathering is, it’s important to note that it is hardly unprecedented. Nearly half a century ago, our nation’s 64th Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, launched the national dialogue we’re extending today when he convened the first-ever National Conference on Bail and Criminal Justice here in Washington.

That landmark gathering helped to raise awareness about the need for pretrial justice reform, and to usher in a wave of meaningful changes – most notably, the Federal Bail Reform Act of 1966, which constituted the first major restructuring of the federal system since the year George Washington was sworn in as president.

Before Robert Kennedy’s historic conference, there was limited understanding about the cost and public safety benefits of allowing for the release of defendants on their own recognizance, pending trial. And few states had established such policies. But soon after Attorney General Kennedy helped to shine a light on this issue, there was a flurry of activity in state legislatures nationwide – as proposals were formulated, considered, and implemented. By 1999, in one form or another, virtually every state had put these policies into effect.

Policymakers, law enforcement officers, and judges across the country helped to design appropriate procedures to detain without bail those defendants who were deemed too dangerous for release – or who posed a flight risk – while at the same time safeguarding due process and civil rights. Today – after decades of study, analysis, and cooperation – there is no doubt that, compared to Kennedy’s time, current pretrial release and diversion programs are not only more effective, but more just.

And yet – serious problems, as well as significant inefficiencies, remain.

As we speak, close to three quarters of a million people reside in America’s jail system. When they are sent home or sentenced to prison, they will cycle out, and others will cycle in – so that, by the end of the year, 10 million individuals will have been involved in nearly 13 million jail admissions and releases.

Across the country, nearly two thirds of all inmates who crowd our county jails – at an annual cost of roughly nine billion taxpayer dollars – are defendants awaiting trial. That’s right, nearly two thirds of all inmates.

Many of these individuals are nonviolent, non-felony offenders, charged with crimes ranging from petty theft to public drug use. And a disproportionate number of them are poor. They are forced to remain in custody – for an average of two weeks, and at a considerable expense to taxpayers – because they simply cannot afford to post the bail required – very often, just a few hundred dollars – to return home until their day in court arrives.

This link between financial means and jail time is troubling in its own right. But it’s compounded by the fact that many inmates become ineligible for health benefits while they’re in jail – imposing an additional burden on taxpayers when they’re released, and often are forced to rely on emergency rooms for even the most routine medical treatments.

Now, the reality is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Almost all of these individuals could be released and supervised in their communities – and allowed to pursue or maintain employment, and participate in educational opportunities and their normal family lives – without risk of endangering their fellow citizens or fleeing from justice. Studies have clearly shown that almost all of them could reap greater benefits from appropriate pretrial treatment or rehabilitation programs than from time in jail – and might, as a result, be less likely to end up serving long prison sentences.

But, within the confines of the current system, we too often find ourselves with few – if any – viable alternatives to incarceration.

This is where today’s conversation begins – and why this symposium is so important. By competently assessing risk of release, weighing community safety alongside relevant court considerations, and engaging with pretrial service providers – in private agencies, as well as in courts, probation departments, and sheriff’s offices – we can design reforms to make the current system more equitable, while balancing the concerns of judges, prosecutors, defendants, and advocacy organizations. We can help those serving on the bench make informed decisions that improve cost-effectiveness and preserve safety needs, as well as due process. And we can spark, as Robert Kennedy did, not only a vital discussion – but unprecedented progress.

I’m proud to report that, already, the Department of Justice is working to support pretrial services – and evidence-based decision making – in jurisdictions across the country. Together with our partners at the Pretrial Justice Institute and the National Association of Counties, we’re providing guidance to elected officials at the local level, and soliciting perspectives from experienced pretrial management professionals. We’re examining new ways to ensure that risk assessment is an integral part of the conversation. And, to that end, we’ve published a report – based on the research and recommendations of experts from across the country – on how to improve our capabilities and manage defendant risk when it comes to detention and release decisions.

At the same time, we’re working to improve reentry policies, so we can have an impact on both ends of the process – from pretrial justice, to the smooth reintegration of those we release from custody. In January, I chaired the first meeting of the Interagency Reentry Council, composed of seven Cabinet Members and other top Administration officials – which, last year, awarded almost $100 million under the Second Chance Act to support substance abuse treatment, employment assistance, housing, mentoring, and other reentry services. In total, we now support some 250 reentry programs, and have launched rigorous evaluations to measure the degree to which they reduce recidivism.

There’s no reason why we can’t – or shouldn’t – adopt a similarly broad-based approach to the pretrial justice system. But, with federal, state, and municipal resources in high demand and short supply, the simple truth is that government simply can’t solve these problems alone. We need to engage key partners and innovators across the country to guide our efforts, to bring an expanded network of stakeholders to the table, and to push for responsible reform.

So, to be blunt – we need your expertise. We need your ideas. And we need your help.

Our discussions must be grounded in rational and transparent risk assessments – built on evidence-based tools, and predicated on the presumption of innocence – but ever mindful of the need to keep our neighborhoods safe.

Each of you can play a key role in this effort. You can help us find ways to support the growth of pretrial service agencies and diversion programs in the more than 300 jurisdictions where they already exist – and encourage their creation where they do not. You can fight to ensure that, for every defendant who enters the system, our judges have access to the best information possible – along with a range of supervision and service options, as well as sound guidelines to inform their decisions.

And you can broaden our engagement with other experts on the ground, raising the profile of this work – and igniting, once again, a movement for meaningful change.

The call for such a movement was first issued nearly half a century ago, at the very first gathering of this kind, when Robert Kennedy challenged this nation, “to see to it that for the poor man, the word ‘law’ does not mean an enemy, a technicality, an obstruction. Let us see to it that law, for all men, means justice.”

This is the mission, the legacy, and the cause that we now must carry forward.

As we rededicate ourselves to this work, I can’t help but feel optimistic about where we’ll arrive – and what we will achieve – together. Not only do I look forward to hearing about the discussions that you will have – and the recommendations that you will develop – during this symposium, I look forward to our continued partnership, our continued progress, and our continued pursuit of security, opportunity, and justice for all.

Thank you.

Updated August 18, 2015