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Attorney General Holder Speaksat the European Offenders Employment Forum


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Laurie [Robinson]. I appreciate your kind words, and I’m especially grateful for the commitment you’ve made – and the leadership and expertise you’re providing – to help build a stronger, smarter, and more effective criminal justice system.

Let me also thank Mike Stewart and the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, as well as the National Transitional Jobs Network, for organizing and hosting this conference. This is an extraordinary, first-of-its-kind gathering of advocates, and I am proud to be a part of it.

Today, we have a unique, and critically important, opportunity – the chance to identify and to advance some of the world’s most effective public safety and prisoner reentry strategies. I want to thank each of you for your engagement – and for everything that you are doing in the name of community safety and community healing. Your work changes lives. It strengthens families. And – across the United States, the European Union, and far beyond – it is helping to ensure that people who want to improve our society, as well as their own circumstances, have opportunities to grow, to learn, and to contribute.

Every person in this room – whether you work as an attorney or law enforcement officer, conduct research or develop policy – can agree that prisoner reentry is one of the most complex criminal-justice challenges of the 21st century.

Today, corrections systems, worldwide, are under extraordinary stress. Capacity limitations and budget constraints have resulted in an acceleration of early release and have put prisoner education and employment training programs at risk. On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, people transitioning out of prison now confront labor market conditions that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression.

Despite these and other challenges, you are here – refusing to settle for the status quo and expanding your search for the solutions we need. Many of you are also proving that local problems often demand, and can be addressed best by, global solutions. But, to ensure that people who have committed crimes can become productive members of society and not public safety threats, we must take this work – and our partnerships – to the next level.

Here in the United States, more than 2 million people are behind bars – that’s more than 1 in 100 American adults and, according to the World Prison Brief, more inmates than the top 35 European countries combined. At some point, 95 percent of those prisoners will be released. Each year, nearly three-quarters of a million people transition out of state and federal prisons. Millions more cycle through local jails.

Once those who commit crimes pay their societal debt, we have many expectations: 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 all of you have seen, these expectations are not always met.

And while we know that stable employment is one of the keys to successful reintegration, we also know that it is one of the greatest challenges of reentry.

Many employers are not eager to hire former prisoners, and – in today’s economic climate – these individuals often find themselves at the back of the line. A recent report from 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 half of all released prisoners will be reincarcerated within three years.

Those who commit crimes aren’t the only ones who lose. 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. And when quality, employment-centered programs are made available during and after incarceration, one demonstration showed they can cut recidivism rates in half.

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. 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.

Today’s Department of Justice is dedicated to being smart, not only tough, on crime – and our reentry efforts are no exception. For me, for President Obama, and for leaders across the administration, effective reentry is a top priority. This commitment is reflected in our work – done in partnership with state, local, tribal, and international governments – to develop comprehensive, evidence-based strategies tailored to meet specific community needs. It is also evident in our budget priorities.

Last year, through the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs, we awarded close to 70 grants to support reentry activities under the banner of the Second Chance Act. Today, our commitment continues.

This morning, I’m pleased to announce that $100 million in Second Chance Act funding will be awarded to support 178 reentry grants nationwide. The grants will be distributed to government agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide a wide range of services – employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing, family programming, mentoring, and others – that can help reduce recidivism.

Before administering this year's grants, the Justice Department received and reviewed 975 applications. That’s right, 975 – a number that reflects a transformation in our national attitude toward reentry. A decade ago, few programs focused on prisoner reintegration. Today, coalitions of government organizations and community groups in every corner of our country are working together to improve reentry outcomes.

This evolution mirrors a fundamental shift in our criminal justice and our social services systems. More and more corrections departments now consider reentry planning to be a part of their core functions. And agencies that tackle housing, health, and other issues have begun to see effective reentry as part of their larger mission.

To put it simply, reentry has moved from the margins to the mainstream.

I have no doubt that this year’s Second Chance Act grants will build on these trends and advance the progress we’re seeing. While most of these new investments will go to states, localities, and nonprofit organizations, we are also awarding funds to support the National Reentry Resource Center – a “one stop shop” for state-of-the-art information and assistance. Soon, the Center will include a “what works” library with searchable, up-to-date information about the most effective programs, policies, and practices for reducing recidivism, increasing employment, decreasing substance abuse, and producing other positive outcomes.

But there is still much to learn. That’s why $10 million dollars will be invested in new and more rigorous research on the effectiveness and impact of reentry programs.

In addition to these new grants, I’m pleased to tell you all that the Justice Department is moving forward with a new initiative – known as Project Reentry – to strengthen our recidivism and reentry work. Project Reentry will focus on implementing recommendations that have been developed by the Sentencing and Corrections Policy Working Group that I convened last April. One key area of focus is forging and strengthening partnerships across and beyond our government.

For example, we plan to build on our existing collaboration with the Department of Labor to leverage federal resources on behalf of local reentry programs. And, later this year, I plan to convene an inter-agency group to address reentry issues and ensure that this work is a Cabinet-level priority.

As part of this new initiative, we’re already taking steps to improve coordination between the Department’s components, among our network of U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, and with our Congressional partners, as well as our international counterparts. And I’m confident that the Project Reentry initiative will help us to identify and build on policies and strategies that are already in place at the federal level and showing positive results.

For example, the Fifth Circuit Judicial Council, representing Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, recently adopted ten mandatory minimum standards for reentry court programs – work that’s bringing together judges, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, treatment professionals, workforce development specialists, and others. The standards emphasize evidence-based screening and assessment and call for ongoing judicial intervention. And this approach has the potential for great promise. Through Project Reentry, we will work to replicate this approach and other best practices.

As we do, I want to emphasize that our efforts to make the most of limited resources will continue. This is critical.

Here in the United States, the cost of housing state prisoners has quadrupled over the last two decades. In fact, state spending on corrections has grown at a faster rate than nearly any other state budget item. Last year, the price tag on state prisons topped $50 billion. The current pace of prison growth is – quite frankly – no longer economically sustainable. And from a cost-benefits perspective, it’s simply indefensible. The same is true across Europe. In fact, as my U.K. counterpart, Kenneth Clarke, has pointed out, it now costs more to put someone in prison than it does to send a boy to Eton.

Of course, some violent offenders deserve lengthy prison terms – and society is better off having them behind bars. But – as we’re seeing in states like Texas and Kansas – public safety can improve, and taxpayers can see significant savings, when people who commit crimes are served by high-quality community supervision and programs where services and sanctions work in unison.

In an effort to advance and replicate successful Justice Reinvestment strategies, the Department of Justice is awarding $10 million to expand these activities in states, counties, and tribal communities. We’re also considering the implications of Justice Reinvestment strategies at the federal level. And I know that similar efforts are underway across Europe. We look forward to sharing our experiences with you – and to learning from yours.

Without question, we face a formidable challenge. I can’t pretend that changing entrenched criminal justice policies, especially in the wake of an economic recession, is easy work. But, by joining together, I believe that we can realize our shared 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 the United States Justice Department, I look forward to strengthening our partnerships and ensuring that all of our fellow citizens have the chance to improve their lives, strengthen our society, and help build the future we all seek.

Thank you.

Updated August 19, 2015