Good afternoon and thank you for that warm welcome. I want to thank Governor [John Bel] Edwards for that very kind introduction; for his lifelong commitment to law enforcement; and for his thoughtful leadership in promoting evidence-based, proven strategies for strengthening the work that we are here to discuss. I also want to thank Executive Director [Jim] Gondles for inviting me to address you and for his decades of outstanding work in law enforcement and corrections. Thanks to all of the distinguished experts and passionate advocates who are here with us today. And I want to take a moment to thank our extraordinary correctional staff and to recognize the outstanding and challenging work that they perform every day. Your efforts may not often make headlines and they rarely receive the praise they deserve. But I know, as you do, that your work as law enforcement officers – and you are law enforcement officers in the clearest sense – is profoundly important, deeply necessary and essential to fulfilling the Justice Department’s sacred mission. You defend the American people and protect our values; you build safer communities and reduce crime and exploitation. I am proud to serve alongside you in that effort.
It’s a pleasure to join you all here in New Orleans as we explore new ways to protect public safety and promote justice throughout the United States. That effort is an essential part of this country’s founding mission to provide liberty, justice and equality for all – and for more than 140 years, the American Correctional Association (ACA) has been devoted to holding our correctional institutions to those ideals. By maintaining the highest ethical standards among correctional workers and administrators at all levels, you ensure that incarcerated people are treated fairly, with decency and with respect for their humanity. By advancing research, you help the public and policymakers understand where our system falls short and how it can be made stronger. And by promoting rehabilitation and reentry, you stand for the principle that those who have done their time deserve a meaningful second chance at a better life; that all of us are more than the worst thing we have ever done. As your founders wrote a century and a half ago in the ACA’s Declaration of Principles: “The state has not discharged its whole duty to the criminal when it has punished him, nor even when it has reformed him. Having raised him up, it has further duty to aid in holding him up.” You have always been at the forefront of corrections policy in the United States and as a result of your efforts, our society is fairer, safer and stronger today.
It is essential that we recognize and celebrate the progress made by organizations like the ACA – but we must also leverage that progress to propel us forward. The criminal justice system as a whole still faces real and important challenges. A cycle of poverty and incarceration cuts through too many of our communities. Harsh mandatory sentences continue to strain our prisons and jails with too many individuals who have committed nonviolent, low-level drug crimes, making it difficult to allocate scarce resources effectively. Funding for rehabilitation is hard to come by, denying too many inmates the programs and skills they need to successfully return home. And even those who do receive training are released into a society filled with unnecessary roadblocks to getting a job and finding a place to live – a counterproductive system that makes it easier for them to slip back into the patterns that landed them in jail in the first place.
Addressing these issues is central to the mission of the ACA. It is also central to the work of the Justice Department and the Obama Administration. In 2013, my predecessor, Attorney General Eric Holder, launched the Smart on Crime initiative – a landmark effort to make federal law enforcement more efficient, more effective and more fair. We shifted our approach away from harsh mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenses, which enabled us to focus on more dangerous defendants and more violent crimes. We also placed an emphasis on rehabilitation and reentry programs that can reduce recidivism and promote public safety. And I am pleased to say that, during the time that Smart on Crime has been in effect, we have seen a reduction in crowding, making our prisons safer while allowing for the delivery of reentry and rehabilitative programs that are so critical to changing lives.
Improving rehabilitation programs and smoothing reentry isn’t just good for inmates; it’s also good for correctional staff and for our communities as a whole. More than 600,000 people are released from federal, state and local prisons every year. These are 600,000 people who are someone’s father, someone’s mother; someone’s brother or sister and someone’s child. Preparing them to find good housing, to be reliable employees, to contribute to their communities and to abide by the law is a critical component of our responsibilities and it has tremendous implications for the safety of our neighborhoods, the health of our economy and the strength of our nation. If we can reduce recidivism by helping motivated individuals successfully reenter society, we can reduce crime across the country – and make our neighborhoods better places to live, work and raise our children.
At the Department of Justice, we are taking our efforts even further. In the last fiscal year alone, our Office of Justice Programs (OJP) has disbursed $53 million in Second Chance Act grants to promising state and local reentry efforts, with a particular focus on populations at the greatest risk of recidivism, including justice-involved youth and people with mental illness. Last year, the Department hired its first-ever Second Chance Fellow, Daryl Atkinson – a formerly incarcerated individual who went on to earn a law degree and who now advises the Justice Department on issues related to reentry. And through the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which I have the privilege of chairing, the department is working closely with a number of Cabinet-level agencies to promote innovative approaches to reintegration – from expanding Pell Grant eligibility with the Department of Education; to studying ways to reduce homelessness with the Department of Health and Human Services; to assisting municipalities with record-cleaning and expungement alongside the Department of Labor.
Of course, we recognize that the work of helping incarcerated individuals succeed outside prison must begin inside prison. That not only involves ensuring humane and safe conditions for inmates and staff – an area in which our Civil Rights Division has collaborated closely with correctional leaders around the country. It also requires commitment to a correctional philosophy that promotes rehabilitation from day one. For decades, the heart of that commitment has been Federal Prison Industries (FPI), which President Franklin Roosevelt established in 1934 to employ thousands of incarcerated people. Today, FPI remains the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) largest and most successful reentry program, helping men and women find a new sense of purpose and develop concrete skills that they can bring back to their communities. I am proud of the work that FPI is doing. My dedication to its continued success is unwavering. And I am pleased to welcome its new CEO, Gary Simpson – an expert in manufacturing operations with 28 years of experience. Over the next few years, Gary will spearhead a business transformation plan to expand FPI’s activities – using a business model that results in no costs to the taxpayers – to ensure that more incarcerated individuals can take advantage of this vital program. I am excited about where his work will take us.
In addition to reinforcing tried-and-true programs like FPI, the Department of Justice is also forging new pathways to better reentry outcomes. This administration took a major step when the Bureau of Prisons created the Reentry Services Division, which has expanded mental health resources, supported substance abuse treatment programs and improved work and educational opportunities that prepare inmates for success after release. BOP also launched a comprehensive assessment of its educational offerings, identifying opportunities for improvement across its correctional institutions. You will hear more about our innovative approach to prison education and adult literacy in the weeks to come. But so far, BOP is more effectively serving inmates between the ages of 18 and 21 who require special learning accommodations and it has also inspired a specialized pilot curriculum for inmates who need instruction at the Pre-K through fifth-grade levels.
Beyond these advances, we are determined to reform areas of longstanding correctional policy that aren’t effective. For decades, prison systems have sought to better manage their facilities by removing certain inmates from the general population – placing them in “restrictive housing” and solitary confinement. While there are times when this practice is necessary for the protection of inmates, personnel, or the public, there is little doubt that has sometimes been used without due consideration and without good cause. We also know that it is possible to reduce the use of restrictive housing while also enhancing staff safety – creating better conditions for inmates and for the brave and hardworking officers charged with their protection. Since January 2012, the federal Bureau of Prisons – under the outstanding leadership of former Director Charles Samuels – has cut its restrictive housing population by 25 percent while achieving significant reductions in staff assaults at the same time. This only serves to underscore that we can change our practices without compromising a bedrock principle of corrections: that the safety of our officers and our inmates comes first.
Last July, in order to examine our own practices further and identify areas for improvement, President Obama directed me to lead a review of restrictive housing across American prisons. I am pleased to say that we have completed our review and delivered our report to the President. And the President has directed the department to implement our recommendations.
In conducting this review, the Department of Justice drew on the extensive experience and collective wisdom of BOP under the leadership of former Director Charles Samuels, advocates and stakeholders who are invested in this issue and, of course, the ACA itself. We developed a series of guiding principles that reflect our values and our goals. For example, we believe that inmates should be housed in the least restrictive setting necessary to ensure their own safety, as well as the safety of staff, other inmates and the public. Correctional systems should always be able to clearly articulate why an inmate is in restrictive housing and those reasons should be supported by objective evidence. And restrictive housing should always serve a specific purpose – with a “step-down” program in place to ultimately return the inmate involved to less restrictive conditions. As you all know, one of the challenges in trying to improve restrictive housing practices is that it currently serves multiple purposes: it is used to address inmates who violate disciplinary rules; to protect inmates who face threats within the prison system; and to isolate inmates who can’t function safely in the general population. And so, in order to make lasting reforms and ensure restrictive housing is used in accordance with these principles, we need a multi-pronged strategy.
To that end, in addition to the guiding principles, the report identifies several specific steps that we must take: We must put reasonable limits on when, why and for how long an inmate can be placed in restrictive housing. We must enhance our efforts to divert high-risk, high-needs inmates – such as those with serious mental illness, or verified security threats – to alternative forms of housing, where they can receive specialized services in less restrictive conditions. We must conduct regular, multidisciplinary staff reviews of inmates’ placement in restrictive housing. We must improve the conditions within restrictive housing to ensure that individuals have more time out of their cells and receive needed programming. We must focus on reentry and make special efforts to ensure that inmates are not placed in restrictive housing during the final months of their prison terms. And we must enhance protections for vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women; gay, lesbian and transgender inmates; and especially young people.
Among the actions I will direct BOP to take to meet these goals is an across-the-board reduction of maximum penalties for punitive segregation to curb excessive use of restrictive housing and solitary confinement as punishment – including a ban on restrictive housing as discipline for low-level offenses. I will direct the Bureau to establish new protective custody units so that inmates who need protective custody won’t be unnecessarily placed in solitary confinement. I will direct wardens to increase out-of-cell time in restrictive housing. I will direct the Bureau to allocate $24 million in additional mental health services for federal restrictive housing inmates – a request that will be included in the President’s budget for Fiscal Year 2017. And I am proud to say that, in line with this report’s recommendation, I will direct the Bureau of Prisons to terminate the practice of placing children and juveniles in restrictive housing. In the interest of our children’s safety; in the interest of their development; and in the interest of ensuring their ability to succeed, we are ending this practice once and for all.
I am confident that these policies will help all of us move towards greater transparency, efficiency and effectiveness and they will serve as a valuable roadmap for future reforms in the federal system and in correctional facilities across the country. I know that the ACA is preparing its own recommendations for reducing our reliance on restrictive housing – many of which are in line with our own guiding principles – and I want to applaud you for your leadership and your commitment to this vital issue. I look forward to drawing on your wisdom and experience and collaborating with all of you as we move ahead together.
At the federal level, we’re already addressing one of the main reasons we rely on restrictive housing: the unprecedented growth in the federal prison population over the last three decades. The swelling number of inmates has maxed out our facilities, jeopardized our rehabilitation efforts and made it harder for correctional officers to safely and effectively do their jobs – which are already among the most difficult in law enforcement. To address this problem, Congress established the bipartisan Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections – an independent working group that for the past year has studied overcrowding in federal prisons – and this week, I received the task force’s recommendations. They describe a series of concrete steps that we can take in some of the areas we’ve discussed today. They call for a reassessment of whom we incarcerate and for how long, so that we can be sure that we’re using our system wisely and effectively. They advocate for a culture of safety and rehabilitation in our prisons, including through the use of risk-reduction programming. They augment our reintegration practices by emphasizing supervision and support. And they bolster transparency and accountability to ensure that these goals are being met. The task force also requests federal funding to support these reforms and I urge Congress to take appropriate action. I further call on Congress to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, a bill that was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a strong bipartisan basis, as soon as possible. That bill would represent an important step forward on many of these critical issues – and will help us put federal prisons on a path that is more fair and more sustainable for inmates, correctional officers and taxpayers alike.
These are all important steps forward and I am personally committed to expanding on this work in the days and months ahead, while ensuring that we continue to protect our hardworking correctional workers from harm. I am always mindful of the fact that, in performing your duties, you and your colleagues risk your personal safety – and even your lives – every day. And while the Bureau of Prisons took some major steps to bolster protections over the past couple of years, we intend to continue exploring new technologies and new strategies to make your difficult jobs as safe as possible.
It is encouraging that, as a result of the renewed attention these matters are receiving in research, advocacy and media coverage, a growing number of Americans have begun to join our shared call for progress in criminal justice. Particularly in the last few years, thanks in no small part to the leadership and dedication of the people in this room, that chorus has expanded to encompass people from across the political spectrum and from all walks of life. At this critical moment of rare bipartisan agreement, it is more important than ever that we harness this momentum and continue to push forward. With the help of extraordinary partners like you and with the determination and fortitude that you have always shown, I believe that we will make the most of this unique moment of consensus. I believe that we will give every American their chance to lead lives of meaning and purpose. And I believe that when we are finished, we will have left our children a society that is safer, more prosperous and more just.
Thank you for your enduring commitment to this important issue. Thank you for all that you’ve done and continue to do on behalf of the safety and well-being of the American people. And thank you for your steadfast partnership in holding this nation to its own timeless principles. I look forward to all that we will accomplish – together – in the days ahead.