Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good afternoon, everyone and thank you so much for that warm welcome. I want to begin by thanking Chief Judge [Beryl] Howell – a tremendous jurist who I have known since we were Assistant U.S. Attorneys together in the Eastern District of New York. I want to thank my good friend and colleague, Channing Phillips, for his outstanding leadership of the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia, for his exceptional service to the American people and for his office’s hard work alongside the District Court, the U.S. Probation Office and the Federal Public Defender in helping to establish this reentry court. I also want to recognize Judge [Reggie] Walton for his decades of distinguished service on the bench at both the local and federal levels and I want to commend him for being the first presiding judge of this important court, which I know will benefit from his experience and wisdom. It is a pleasure to be here today and it is a privilege to join so many eminent judges, dedicated public servants and committed partners as we embark on a new chapter in our ongoing efforts to make our nation’s system of criminal justice more efficient, more effective and more fair.
I am especially pleased that we are joined today by the most important people here - the members of this court’s inaugural class – individuals who are making the promise of this opportunity real. By volunteering to participate in reentry court, each of you is taking responsibility for your past. But far more importantly, you are taking control of your futures. You are affirming that you want to return to your communities as productive and law-abiding citizens – and you are asking to be held accountable in your efforts to do so. I want you to know how proud I am of your willingness to step forward, to ask for help and to change the course of your lives. But I also want you to know that I am counting on you to see your commitment through to graduation. As the inaugural participants in this new endeavor, you have an outsized role to play in setting the tone for the classes that will follow you. You have a chance to demonstrate that programs like this one work. And you have an opportunity to position yourselves for lives of renewed purpose and meaning.
Now, none of you should have any illusions that the months ahead will be easy. But as I need not tell this group – life is not easy. And things that are worthwhile require work. You will be asked to adhere to high standards, to set and work towards ambitious goals and to adopt a new approach to life. Your dedication will be challenged and your resolve will be tested. But I want you to know that as you go forward, you will not be alone. Judge Walton and his colleagues on the reentry court want you to do well. They will push you and challenge you and, when needed, chastise you. But they will also always support you and if you let them help you, if you remember what brought you here in the first place and if you keep your eyes fixed firmly on the brighter future that awaits you, I have no doubt that each of you will succeed.
At the Department of Justice our mission is larger than just to obtain convictions – it is to seek justice. To do the right thing. And a fundamental part of our commitment to justice is helping to make sure that once you have paid your debt to society, you truly are able to rejoin society. I want you to know that I am personally committed to your success and to the success of returning citizens like you across the country. I believe, as my friend Bryan Stevenson says, that “All of us are more than the worst thing we have ever done.” That’s why the Department of Justice, through the U.S. Attorney’s Office here in Washington, is involved in this reentry court. And it’s why we are working tirelessly on a number of fronts to ensure that individuals who have been incarcerated have a meaningful second chance at life. In the last year, the department’s Office of Justice Programs has distributed more than $53 million to promising state and local reentry efforts. We hired our first-ever Second Chance Fellow, Daryl Atkinson – an individual who served time in prison, who went on to earn a law degree and who now advises the Justice Department on issues related to reentry. And we are proud participants in the Federal Interagency Reentry Council – which President Obama recently elevated to a White House level initiative – and which I am privileged to co-chair. The Reentry Council brings together Cabinet-level agencies from across the Obama Administration to develop collaborative and comprehensive approaches to reintegration and our work with the council has already resulted in a number of innovative partnerships. We’re working with the Department of Education to expand Pell Grant eligibility to federal inmates. We’re joining the Department of Health and Human Services in studying ways to reduce homelessness among those who have spent time in prison. And we are partnering with the Department of Labor to help local municipalities improve their record-cleaning and expungement services, so that returning citizens have a better chance to find jobs or get an education.
These are all incredibly important efforts – so important that we devoted an entire week to highlighting them, expanding them and moving them forward at the end of April. The first-ever National Reentry Week was an administration-wide undertaking designed to draw attention to the challenges facing justice-involved individuals and to promote our work to improve reentry outcomes, reduce recidivism and create stronger and safer communities throughout the United States. In addition to holding more than 500 events across the country – including a number of reentry court graduations – we took two major policy steps during Reentry Week. First, we released our “Roadmap to Reentry,” a major reform package that details significant changes to how the federal Bureau of Prisons prepares inmates for release – from plans to improve how we assess the rehabilitation needs of each inmate, to an ambitious effort to strengthen and expand Federal Prison Industries, our most successful job-training program. The second step was a letter that I sent to the governors of all 50 states, asking each of them to work with us to allow citizens returning from federal prisons to exchange their federal BOP inmate ID card – and their authenticated release documentation – for a state-issued ID, allowing them to reclaim the names – the identities - that are often supplanted with a prison number. With this simple step, the states can make a major difference – not only by standardizing the current patchwork of state policies regarding IDs for returning citizens, but also by sending a clear message that individuals like you who are coming home are truly welcome home.
These are all tremendous efforts and they are getting tremendous results. In the months ahead, the Department of Justice will strive to build upon the work that is already underway – but we cannot do it alone. The launch of this reentry court is another important step forward. But in order to make the argument that programs like these should be grown and expanded, we need these programs to succeed. And the only true measure of success is whether you, the participants, succeed. As you prepare to begin reentry court, I urge you to see this court not only as an opportunity to transform your own lives, but also as a chance to touch the lives of others – to be agents of change not only within your families and your communities, but within our broader national effort to reshape our laws and systems so that they are more closely aligned with our nation’s fundamental promise of equal justice for all. We have spoken of some difficult days ahead and I know that for many of you this opportunity is borne of previous difficulties and challenges. Let those difficulties push you forward to embrace a new life. Use them to help not just yourself, but those who will come after you on this path.
That is both my hope for you and my challenge to you – and I want to thank you for accepting it. I want to thank you for choosing to chart a new path for yourselves and choosing to help blaze a trail for others. And know this – I have faith in you and you have the full support of the United States Department of Justice. Welcome home.