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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at theNational Second Chance Act Conference


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Mary Lou, for your kind words, for your outstanding leadership of the Office of Justice Programs, and for your commitment to building a stronger, smarter, and more effective criminal justice system. It is a privilege to join with you – and with Director O’Donnell, Director Thompson, and Congressman Davis – in opening this conference and kicking off what I know will be a series of thoughtful, productive discussions.

Let me also thank our conference organizers – especially the Council of State Governments Justice Center – for bringing together so many distinguished leaders, advocates, allies, and experts. Whether you’re a parole officer or a treatment provider – whether you conduct research or develop job placements – you know that prisoner reentry is one of the most complex criminal-justice issues of the 21st century. And I’m grateful to each of you for the sacrifices you’ve made to participate this week – and for all that you do, each day, to promote community safety and community healing. All across the country, your work is changing lives. It is strengthening families. And it is helping to ensure that people who want to improve our society, as well as their own circumstances, have the chance – and the support they need – to grow, to learn, and to contribute.

This week, we have a unique, and critically important, opportunity to take this work to the next level – and to identify and advance some of the nation’s most effective public safety and prisoner reentry strategies. As Chair of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, I share your commitment to making the progress that we need – and that the American people deserve. I am dedicated to building on the momentum that many of you have helped to create, and that the Council is driving forward. And I recognize that these efforts, quite simply, could not be more urgent.

Today, more than 2 million people across the country – and more than 1 in 100 American adults – currently are behind bars. At some point, 95 percent of these prisoners will be released. Each year, approximately 700,000 people transition out of state and federal prisons, and millions more cycle through local jails.

Once those who commit crimes pay their societal debt, we expect that they will reenter our communities, ready to assume a productive role; that they will remain crime-free and sober; that they will get jobs. But, as many of you have seen firsthand, these expectations are not always met – and, for a variety of reasons, reentry is not always an easy path.

For example, while we know that stable employment is one of the keys to successful reintegration, it also poses one of the greatest challenges. Many employers are not eager to hire formerly incarcerated people, and – in today’s economic climate – these individuals often find themselves at the back of the line. A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by more than 10 percent, cut annual employment by more than 2 months, and reduced yearly earnings by 40 percent. If having a job is central to successful reentry, then it is no wonder that two-thirds of all released prisoners will be re-arrested within three years.

But those who commit crimes aren’t the only ones who suffer. In this country, 1 in 28 children has a parent behind bars. Studies show that these kids often struggle with anxiety, depression, learning problems, and aggression – undermining their own chances to succeed. In many cases, maintaining family relationships during incarceration can improve the lives of these children and reduce recidivism rates later on.

There’s a theme here: maintaining family connections and developing job skills during incarceration can improve public safety, reduce recidivism, and have lasting positive effects. And as many of you have pointed out – to leaders across and beyond government – it is time we started to think about reentry in this context. And it is critical that we turn to sound science and evidence-supported strategies to guide our work.

That’s what this week’s conference is all about. And that’s why – for today’s Department of Justice – our commitment to being smart, as well as tough, on crime extends to our reentry efforts. This is reflected in our work – with state, local, tribal, and international partners – to develop comprehensive, evidence-based strategies tailored to meet specific community needs. It’s also evident in our budget allocations and investments.

I’m proud to report that, last year, through the Department’s Office of Justice Programs, we awarded more than $80 million under the banner of the Second Chance Act to support more than 120 government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Today, these grants are helping to support a wide range of reentry activities – including employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing, family programming, mentoring, and other services – that can help reduce recidivism. And I believe it’s worth noting that each of the grantees represented here today was selected from among more than 1,000 applications – a level of interest that, even a decade ago, would have been unthinkable.

In recent years, we’ve seen a nationwide transformation in attitudes toward reentry – and a sharp increase in the number of programs focused on prisoner reintegration. Today, in every corner of our country, coalitions of government organizations and community groups are working together to improve reentry outcomes. Our correctional systems now consider reentry planning to be a part of their core functions. And agencies that tackle housing, health, labor, and other issues have begun to see effective reentry as part of their larger mission.

This evolution mirrors a fundamental shift in our criminal justice and our social services systems. To put it simply, reentry has moved from the margins to the mainstream. And many of you have been a part of this progress. Yet, despite all we’ve learned, despite the many lessons we’ve successfully applied – and despite the encouraging fact that our most recent studies show increases in parole success rates, and the first reduction in incarceration rates in nearly four decades – we have more to do, and further to go.

Today, I want to assure each of you that – for me, for President Obama, for leaders across the administration, and for my colleagues at every level of the Justice Department – effective reentry is, and will remain, a top priority.

I also want you to know that the Department is determined to build on the record of achievement that we’ve established in recent years – not only through unprecedented levels of grant funding, but also through the landmark initiatives that have been mentioned this morning. From establishing the Federal Interagency Reentry Council – and fostering renewed engagement with strong allies across the federal government – to reinforcing our partnerships with the American Bar Association, extending our outreach to state Attorneys General offices nationwide, sharing best practices on, and – this week – launching the “What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse,” we are taking on the issue like never before. And we’re seeing positive, promising results.

For example, in the state of Ohio, legislators, judges, prosecutors, and criminal justice professionals have come together – crossing city, county, and even party lines – to complete a thorough evaluation of laws and policies that impact collateral consequences of a felony conviction. Last spring, I asked the attorney general of each state to undertake a similar review, and to determine whether certain statutes that impose collateral consequences without increasing public safety should be eliminated. Already, Ohio state officials are developing a strong set of recommendations that will serve as a model to other states as they begin their reviews.

As some of you know, the Department also has called upon all relevant federal agencies to conduct a similar analysis of current regulations to identify any unintended consequences. Several agencies already have begun identifying statutes that may have overly broad implications – and are considering ways to make improvements. Within the Justice Department, we have evaluated more than 200 of our own regulations. And we have identified a number of rules that could be narrowed in scope without negatively impacting public safety. At this point, we’re considering how to move forward either by revising current regulations or by issuing appropriate guidance.

Other markers of progress include the Justice Reinvestment initiative – a data-driven policy and legislative planning process – which is helping to focus and advance efforts aimed at reducing correctional costs and reinvesting resources in high-stakes communities. I want to commend the Council of State Governments and the Bureau of Justice Assistance – along with other key partners – for their leadership in advancing this important effort. As part of this initiative, states like Oklahoma and Hawaii are implementing new policies so that services and sanctions work in unison – and to ensure that high-quality community supervisors and programs are available.

Such efforts are resulting in significant taxpayer savings and public safety improvements nationwide. And states like Vermont – which, after reinvesting $6 million to advance its reentry goals, reduced its three-year recidivism rate by 4 percent and, over the last two years, saw a 5 percent decrease in violent crime – are providing models for other states to learn from and replicate.

We can all be encouraged by these – and many other – achievements; and, above all, by the evidence that meaningful, measurable progress is possible. We should not, and we must not, settle for anything less.

Of course, I can’t pretend that meeting our shared goals and responsibilities – or changing entrenched criminal justice policies, especially in the wake of an economic recession – is easy work. But, by joining together, I am certain that we can realize our common vision of safe, thriving communities.

By your presence here today, you are signaling your commitment to this work. I am grateful to each of you. And I will be counting on you all.

On behalf of my colleagues – across the Justice Department and the Administration – I look forward to strengthening our partnerships and ensuring that all of our fellow citizens have the chance to improve their lives, to strengthen our society, and to help build the future we all seek.

Thank you.

Updated August 18, 2015