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Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Speaks at the
Southeast Regional Reentry Executive Leadership Workshop


Coleman, FL
United States

Thank you, U.S. Attorney O’Neill for that introduction. I am very pleased to be here among this distinguished group of professionals from across the federal criminal justice system.

I want to specifically thank Judge Rodgers for having the vision and dedication to put this workshop together. I’d also like to thank Judge Jeremy Fogel, Bruce Clark and Mark Sherman from the Federal Judicial Center for planning and co-sponsoring this workshop with us.

Finally, I want to commend all of you – our federal judges, prosecutors, defenders, probation officers, corrections professionals, and others – for your participation in this workshop and for your commitment to improving reentry successes and reducing recidivism.

Many of you are probably already familiar with the statistics on criminal justice spending and inmate populations, but I find them so compelling that I think they’re worth repeating.

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that more than $74 billion is spent on state, local and federal corrections annually. Today, some 2.3 million people – more than 1 in 100 American adults – are behind bars. Currently, the federal prison population totals nearly 218,000 and the federal Bureau of Prisons’ budget has nearly doubled since 2000 -- to $6.6 billion.

System-wide, the Bureau of Prisons is operating at 38 percent over its rated capacity. Crowding is particularly concerning at high and medium security facilities, with overcrowding at 51, and 48 percent, respectively. In response, the Bureau has had to manage crowding, in part, by double and triple bunking inmates, which places staff and inmates at greater risk of harm and makes it far more difficult to deliver programs aimed at effectively reducing recidivism.

In addition to the growth in our country’s incarcerated population, we are also witnessing a corresponding increase in the number of released inmates, with more than 700,000 individuals leaving state and federal prisons each year. More than 45,000 of these are individuals from federal facilities returning to U.S. communities each year. Forty percent of former federal prisoners are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after release. At the end of 2010, there were 105,552 individuals on federal supervised release.

As you all know, our nation faces serious criminal justice challenges – and particularly in these economic times, we must respond to these growing demands in a way that not only protects public safety, but also contains and controls runaway costs. How do we do that? As Attorney General Holder has said, we must “create a sentencing and corrections system that protects the public, is fair to both victims and defendants, eliminates unwarranted sentencing disparities, reduces recidivism, and controls the federal prison population.” There are many participants in our criminal justice system who play a role in this. Investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, the Sentencing Commission, prison officials, and probation officers are all responsible for maximizing public safety and justice. And only by working together, can we reduce criminal justice spending, protect individuals and their families, and improve the overall quality of our communities. But in order to further these goals, we have to change our way of thinking.

We can no longer afford the societal, moral and budgetary costs incurred when defendants and inmates cycle in and out of our prisons two, three, or four times. We need to look at individuals who have committed low-level, nonviolent crimes and for whom a punishment – other than jail time – will still hold them accountable. This may be a better result for them and for the community at large. We also have to make provisions to equip those individuals leaving prisons each year with the necessary skills and support to reenter society and become productive, tax-paying citizens upon release.

As criminal justice leaders in our districts and communities, we have a responsibility and each of us must do our part to try to make this happen. And, we also have a duty to consider our own individual roles within the criminal justice process and challenge our traditional mindset to find ways that we can become more involved and engaged. Our success will be determined by our ability to bring about long term change by supporting and implementing drug courts, reentry courts and a host of other reentry programs to provide individuals with the help they need.

Now, this work is challenging, and there are no solutions that come without a significant investment of your time, resources and energy. It will take increased cooperation and collaboration – among partners at all levels – to share ideas and find appropriate solutions. And it will take patience. But as we continue to explore what programs and avenues work best, I am confident in our ability to bring about positive results and long term institutional change.

The Attorney General and I are committed to this effort. At the Department of Justice, we’ve made reentry a priority and continue to work to make critical changes that will last. We can’t afford for reentry to be just a temporary initiative -- it needs to be the way that we do business.

The Attorney General has made reentry one of the three prongs of his comprehensive Anti-Violence Strategy, along with prevention and enforcement. The strategy is designed to encourage federal prosecutors to think holistically about the criminal justice process – and to critically examine other ways to improve public safety, beyond traditional enforcement.

This past January, I sent a memorandum to all U.S. Attorneys’ Offices reversing an old Department policy that discouraged our prosecutors from participating in reentry programs. Now, all US Attorneys’ Offices are encouraged to become involved in reentry courts and other reentry programs that are viable.

Last fall, we unveiled the Department’s reentry toolkit for U.S. Attorneys’ Offices that provides a wide variety of information and resources on how to get involved, including several successful examples of effective participation by U.S. Attorneys’ offices in federal reentry courts, as well as other initiatives, such as outreach events for employers to explain potential opportunities and advantages in hiring formerly incarcerated individuals. U.S. Attorneys have also convened Reentry Councils with state and local partners in the districts to improve reentry practices across states. And we’ve participated in jointly-sponsored “call-in” programs, presenting recently-released individuals with a host of options for community support, while explaining the consequences of returning to criminal activity.

The Department is dedicated to continue working with many of you in reentry and problem solving courts across the nation. As you know, federal reentry courts came into being over 15 years after the states first began to experiment with drug courts. Since then, rigorous studies have validated that drug courts reduce both recidivism and public safety costs.

Although scientific studies of reentry courts have so far been relatively limited, they build on many of the same principles and pillars utilized by drug courts. And because of this, we have reason for optimism. The Federal Judicial Center is currently undertaking a multi-year review of the effectiveness of federal reentry courts. While we look forward to the outcomes of this study, we’ve already had reentry court successes. Some individual courts have been examined – and these studies demonstrate the potential positive impact the establishment of even more of these courts could have.

For example, in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the Supervision to Aid Reentry (STAR) reentry court focuses on individuals who are at relatively high risk to commit new crimes upon release. Successful participants are eligible for one year off their supervised release term. Magistrate Judge Tim Rice, a former Criminal Chief in the EDPA, presides over the court. An April 2011 study tracked the first 60 participants in the STAR program for 18 months, and compared that group to a similar group of 60 individuals on regular supervised release. The study found that only 10 percent of STAR program graduates were rearrested during the study period, compared to 31 percent of the control group. According to the program’s 2011 Annual Report, the overall revocation percentage for program participants has remained at between 11 percent and 20 percent throughout the program’s four year existence - well below the district’s five-year average of 47.4 percent.

I know that a number of you and your offices participate directly in reentry courts across this region. I want to thank you for your commitment. You’ve seen firsthand how important this work is. You know that offering treatment and monitoring as well as alternative sanctions – rather than immediate revocation or perhaps prosecution and incarceration -- can yield significant and positive results. And you understand – from experience – the dedication, time, and effort needed – on your part – to implement and run these programs. Yet you remain committed because you understand the risks and the costs of doing nothing and the societal benefits of doing something. But therein lies the challenge. Because of the time and attention required to run a successful reentry program, each one can only handle a limited number of participants. So to bring this to scale and reach more individuals who need the help we can provide, we need to implement more of these programs throughout the country. I am here to tell you that we at the Department of Justice are ready to work with you to do this.

Aside from reentry courts, through the Bureau of Prisons, the Department also helps tens of thousands of incarcerated individuals prepare themselves for a new life after returning home from prison. Release preparation begins for federal inmates on the first day of imprisonment, and continues until their return to the community. We have identified the types of skills that inmates need for successful reentry and have provided a number of programs to meet those needs – ranging from mental health, substance abuse treatment, education and vocational training, and work programs. The evidence shows that our efforts – and these programs – work. They increase public safety and save precious taxpayer money, with participants less likely to recidivate than similarly situated non-participating individuals. For example, data shows that our Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) reduces the recidivism rate by 16%, vocational training by 33%, Federal Prison Industries by 24%, and education programs by 16%. We are exploring how to expand proven programs, like RDAP, while looking at other programs to identify more that can and should be expanded based on evidence of their success. Today, all Bureau staff support reentry as a part of their jobs.

As prisoners finish their sentences, we are working on targeting the ones with higher risks and higher needs for placement in residential reentry centers (RRCs), while sending those with lower risks and needs directly to home confinement. This triaging approach results in the most efficient and cost effective use of the limited numbers of RRC beds and is consistent with the risk-needs-responsivity research you will hear about today by Dr. Edward Latessa.

And I’m hopeful about the collaborative work we plan to do with the Sentencing Commission, the Probation Service and the Courts to review supervised release revocations. There are about 9,000 of these individuals who return to federal prisons each year on such revocations. Innovative work examining violations by individuals under supervision all across the country suggests there may be opportunities for public safety improvement and cost savings in this area as well.

Now at the state and local level, the Department manages Second Chance Act Programs. In the first three years of its existence, Congress has appropriated $208 million dollars to Second Chance Act programs and we have made over 370 awards to state, local and tribal governments and private non-profit organizations.

Through the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, the Attorney General has shown incredible leadership in bringing together over 20 federal departments and agencies, helping to foster critical discussions to reduce barriers to housing, to employment, to education, and to increase access to benefits and treatment.

Reentry Council agencies have recently issued guidance to employers on how to use criminal records as part of the employment process and have provided incentives to employers for hiring those with a record.

The federal government and some states are also assessing their regulations and statutes that impose collateral consequences – or “extra punishments” – on previously incarcerated individuals looking for jobs or housing to determine if any should be eliminated.

Within the Department, I have the privilege of overseeing a reentry working group – bringing together all essential components – to focus on coordination, communication and innovation.

And beyond the Department, we are involved in the Federal Criminal Justice System Reentry Roundtable -- a high-level working group of leaders from the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, the Criminal Law Committee, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the Federal Judicial Center, and agencies throughout the Department of Justice. Staff from each of these components, including personnel from my office, have been exchanging concrete ideas for enhanced coordination and cooperation. In the months ahead, I look forward to additional discussions as we build upon the broader deliverables and policy goals from this conference and identify and pursue additional long term initiatives for the Roundtable. I hope that your workshops tomorrow will not only yield specific deliverables for your districts but spark ideas that we can also implement through the Roundtable and in districts nationwide.

Although we have made great strides in addressing critical reentry issues, there is still much work that needs to be done. We owe it to our communities to take on this important work. The increased burdens we will all suffer if we don’t do this could be enormous. But the benefits to be achieved if we are successful, could be truly transforming. I assure you that the Department remains deeply committed to keep the momentum going – to build – and to improve – upon the remarkable progress we’ve made. As we move forward in these efforts, I am proud to count you as critical partners – and I look forward to working together as we focus on achieving lasting, long term results.

Updated September 17, 2014