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Attorney General Holder Addresses the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Van [Jones], for that kind introduction.  It’s a pleasure to be here today – and a privilege to join so many distinguished public servants, dedicated community leaders, passionate advocates and good friends as we discuss an opportunity to make our criminal justice system more effective, more efficient and more fair for all Americans.  I want to thank the leaders of Cut50 and Gingrich Productions for convening this important conference; the members of the sponsoring organizations for all of their work and support; and everyone here today for your commitment to the ongoing effort to ensure public safety, promote national security and defend the rights and privileges of every American.

We come together at a pivotal moment.  As you know, and as we have heard today, this country faces serious challenges—an excessive prison population that is draining our resources and devastating our communities; systemic institutional biases that disproportionately affect people of color; and an overreliance on incarceration at the expense of alternatives proven to prevent recidivism and strengthen our society.  These are momentous and complex issues calling for urgent and concrete solutions and it is abundantly clear that we cannot allow the status quo to persist.

But it is equally evident that we have an unprecedented opportunity – even at this time of deep division and stubborn gridlock – to bring about a fundamental shift in our criminal justice system, and to act together to drive historic change.  That opportunity is presented not only by the wide range of distinguished individuals who have come to this conference to speak out against injustice and speak up for progress, but also by the rare consensus emerging across the country.  Recently, we have seen conservative stakeholders like Koch Industries and Americans for Tax Reform join with progressive voices like the Center for American Progress to form a new coalition dedicated to this cause.  President Obama has held bipartisan meetings to discuss possible legislation on this topic with members of Congress, including some of the lawmakers who are here with us this morning.  And the administration has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with independent agencies like the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in our effort to make real the promise of equal justice for all.

The Department of Justice has been an early innovator on this front.  In August of 2013, I launched the Smart on Crime initiative – a groundbreaking reform effort designed to enhance public safety while strengthening our criminal justice system at every stage of the criminal process.  By modifying the Justice Department’s charging policies for certain low-level drug offenses, we are ensuring that individuals convicted of crimes face sentences commensurate with their conduct—enabling us to use our limited criminal justice resources more effectively to combat violent criminals, drug kingpins and high-level traffickers.  By pushing back against well-intentioned but overused and counterproductive zero-tolerance school discipline policies, we are preventing young people from becoming involved in the criminal justice system in the first place, and making sure that routine school discipline infractions are handled in the principal’s office – not in a police precinct.  And by investing in a range of cutting-edge diversion programs, such as drug rehabilitation and community service initiatives, we are reducing recidivism and lessening the burden on our nation’s brave law enforcement officers. 

Based on all available evidence, we know that our approach is delivering real, measurable and meaningful positive results.  In the last year, federal prosecutors have gone from seeking a mandatory minimum penalty in two out of every three drug trafficking cases, to doing so in one out of two, representing the lowest rate ever recorded by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.  Last year we also saw the first overall reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years.  Most impressive of all, we achieved this drop in incarceration while also cutting the overall crime rate, marking the first simultaneous national reduction in both crime and incarceration rates in more than four decades.

Of course, we also recognize that challenges to re-entry, and the likelihood of recidivism, can be exacerbated by an array of collateral consequences that make it more difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals to get a job, to further their education, to find housing and to participate fully in this country’s democratic institutions.  For example, across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans – more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states – are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions.  Nearly 150 years after Reconstruction, when felony disenfranchisement laws were first widely  implemented throughout the South to intentionally reduce the electoral strength of former slaves, 40 percent of these individuals are African-American – meaning that nearly one in 13 African-American adults is currently ineligible to cast a ballot.  In three states –Florida, Kentucky and Virginia – that ratio is one in five.

These statistics describe a nation at odds with the promise of its founding, and in tension with its most vital ideals.  They demand that we examine our institutions and reorient our practices to create the more perfect Union that our earliest citizens imagined and the more just society that all Americans deserve.

That’s why the Department of Justice has worked creatively and tirelessly to remove unnecessary obstructions to economic opportunity and independence.  It’s why I convened the Federal Interagency Reentry Council in 2011 to reduce barriers to successful reentry.  It’s why I’ve directed every United States Attorney to designate a Prevention and Reentry Coordinator in his or her district to ensure that this work will be a top priority throughout the country.  It’s why I’ve ordered our law enforcement partners and asked state Attorneys General, to reconsider policies that target formerly incarcerated individuals with overly burdensome collateral consequences that do little to meaningfully improve public safety.  And it’s why I have called on governors and state legislatures around the country to tear down vestiges of an unworthy past and restore for all Americans the full and inviolable right to vote.

These are critically important efforts that will make a real and tangible difference in the lives of millions of Americans.  And as you are hearing today, the evidence-based strategies that we are applying – to ensure that 21st-century challenges are met with 21st-century solutions – are producing promising results at the state level as well. 

In recent years, states across the country – supported by the department’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative and led by officials from both parties – have begun work to direct significant funding away from prison construction and toward interventions, such as drug treatment and effective supervision strategies that are known to reduce recidivism while improving public safety.  A report by the Urban Institute, supported by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, projected that 17 states implementing these practices would save $4.6 billion over a 10-year period.  The number of states involved in this initiative has since grown to 24.  And although the full impact of our justice reinvestment policies won’t be known for some time, it’s apparent that these efforts are making a difference already – and showing significant promise across the country.  From Texas, West Virginia and Kentucky, to Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Hawaii, substantial reinvestment and serious-minded reform are improving public safety and saving precious resources. 

These innovations and results-oriented strategies have not only made our criminal justice practices more efficient and more effective – they have also made criminal justice more fair by helping to reduce the significant racial disparities within our prison population.  In 2011, while only 30 percent of Americans were black or Hispanic, the U.S. prison population was 60 percent black and Hispanic, a disparity that is simply too stark.  But justice reinvestment policies can help.  The Council of State Governments Justice Center recently examined data from three states – Georgia, Connecticut, and North Carolina – that have employed a Justice Reinvestment approach.  And I am pleased to announce that today our Bureau of Justice Assistance is releasing a report showing that these common-sense reforms produced a marked reduction in incarceration rates – particularly among men and women of color. 

In Georgia, since sweeping criminal justice reforms were enacted three years ago, prison admissions have fallen by 8 percent and admissions among African Americans have fallen by 11 percent.  In Connecticut, the total number of people in state prisons has declined by 17 percent since 2008, while the number of incarcerated African Americans and Hispanics has dropped by 21 percent and 23 percent, respectively.  In North Carolina, expanded access to substance abuse treatment and new supervision practices, among other crucial reforms, have led to a 21 percent drop in total prison admissions between 2011 and 2014, while African-American and Hispanic admissions dropped by 26 percent and 37 percent, respectively.  And in each of these cases, policies that reduced racial disparities had no adverse effect on public safety.  In fact, all three states experienced a reduction in their overall crime rates. 

These outstanding results demonstrate the effectiveness of our focus on the kind of innovative, data-driven and common sense approaches we are talking about today.  It’s the same spirit that we have applied – and that we must continue to apply – to a wide variety of public safety challenges, from reducing violent crime, to defending against cyberattacks, to safeguarding our vulnerable populations from exploitation and abuse.  It underlies our efforts to repair relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve through programs like the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, which helps to rebuild bonds of trust wherever they have been eroded.  And it animates our work through programs like the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which was launched to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all our young people can reach their full potential.  These objectives are redefining the way this country approaches some of its most entrenched and intractable problems and in every case and circumstance, we are relying on the spirit of collaboration and innovation that brings us here today.

We must reject the notion that old practices are unchangeable, that the policies that have governed our institutions for decades cannot be altered and that the way things have always been done is the way they must always be done.  When the entire U.S. population has increased by a third since 1980, but the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent, it is time – long past time – to look critically at the way we employ incarceration.  When the United States is home to just five percent of the world’s population but incarcerates almost a quarter of its prisoners, it is time – long past time – to reexamine our approach to criminal justice.  And when estimates show that a staggering 1 in 28 American children has a parent behind bars and that the ratio for African-American children is 1 in 9, it is time – long past time – to take decisive action in order to end a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration that traps too many individuals, degrades too many families and devastates too many communities.

That means more state legislatures must end felon disenfranchisement – and so many other barriers to reentry – for individuals who have served their sentences and rejoined their communities, and invest in alternatives to incarceration like drug courts – something I’d like to see in the next five years in every federal district in America.  It means Congress must act to restrict and refine those crimes to which mandatory minimums apply and extend the Fair Sentencing Act so that no one is serving a sentence based on a disparity in punishment between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses that Congress, the President and the Attorney General have all declared unjust.  And it means gatherings like this one must continue to bring together leaders and advocates, academics and public servants, from all backgrounds and circumstances, to renew our commitment to this vital cause.

Ultimately, it means that the work we have completed so far is only the beginning.  As we come together today, we must rededicate ourselves to the spirit of progress.  We must keep fighting for the high ideals that have animated our nation since its inception.  And we must keep standing up and speaking out – no matter the challenges we face – to eradicate victimization and end injustice in all its forms.  There is a long road still ahead of us, and our goals will not be achieved overnight.  But as I look out over the group assembled here, I cannot help but feel optimistic about the future we will build, and the mission we will advance together.

As you know, my time in this Administration will soon come to an end.  But I intend to remain engaged in this work—because, for me, it has never been only a professional obligation; it is a personal calling, and a moral imperative.  No matter what I do – and no matter where I am – I will continue to be an advocate for our efforts to create lasting change.  I will remain committed to fairness and to equality.  And I will always be proud of the work that we have done; of the progress that we have made; and of the challenges we have met with resourcefulness, with ingenuity, and with resolve.

Thank you, once again, for your outstanding work, your unfailing commitment and your devotion to our deepest values and highest ideals.  I look forward to all that we will do and achieve together in the months and years ahead. 

Note: To access the report on "Examining the Changing Racial Composition of Three State Prison Populations" click here:

Access to Justice
Updated April 28, 2016