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Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates Delivers Remarks at the Second Chance Pell Pilot Inaugural Convening


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Nick [Turner], for that kind introduction.  I want to thank you and all your colleagues at the Vera Institute of Justice for hosting this event and for your innovative work in correctional education.  And John [King], it’s a privilege to be here with you today.  I am so grateful for your vision, your leadership and your determination.  You have devoted your life to ensuring that everyone in our country has access to a quality education.  We are all fortunate to have you at the helm of the Department of Education.

I’m also grateful to our colleagues at the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) who have supported this pilot and who are doing such important work strengthening our educational programs in the federal prison system, as well as our colleagues at the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) who are assisting the Vera Institute. 

The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program is a big moment in the overall effort to improve our criminal justice system.  Through this pilot, 12,000 inmates will have access to post-secondary education through 69 colleges and universities, including seven BOP facilities, from Massachusetts to Texas.  As a result of this pilot, these inmates will have opportunities when they leave prison that they didn’t have before.  And providing those opportunities to individuals returning to our communities is as much a responsibility of the Department of Justice as was sending them to prison in the first place.   

I come to this issue with the perspective of a career prosecutor.  I joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta in September of 1989 and I’ve been with the Justice Department ever since.  Now, as the Deputy Attorney General, I oversee day-to-day operations for the Justice Department and so I see all sides of our criminal justice system.

Unlike most states, the federal government puts its law enforcement agents, criminal prosecutors and correctional officers all in a single department, giving us responsibility for the federal justice system from the start of an investigation to the end of a prison sentence.  Consequently, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to seek justice and make our communities safe across the full spectrum of the criminal justice system.  To do that, we have to focus on more than just prosecution; it takes devotion to meaningful prevention and rehabilitation as well.   

All three prongs are essential, because we all know that no matter how many prisons we build or long sentences we impose, we are not going to jail our way into safer communities.  Ensuring that those reentering society from prison have the basic tools they need just to have a fighting shot at being successful on the outside is the right thing to do not only for these individuals, but also for our communities.  Because recidivism reduction is crime prevention.

As everyone here knows, we have high recidivism rates in this country – about two-thirds of state inmates and 40 percent of federal inmates reoffend within three years of release.  But we don’t have to accept that as a permanent condition.  We can do something about it.  And one of the best ways to reduce recidivism is to give inmates access to quality education while they are in prison.  As John mentioned, individuals who participate in correctional education are 43 percent less likely to reoffend when released.  What does that mean?  Not only does the individual not return to prison, with the obvious benefit both to him and his family, but it means that there are fewer future victims of crime as well.  Our communities are safer.  We break the cycle of poverty and prison.  And our country is stronger for it.

As if that weren’t enough, investing in equipping inmates to be successful when they are released is the fiscally responsible thing to do as well.  In a world of limited resources, we must direct our funds to the programs that are most effective and have the greatest impact.  The research is clear that giving inmates access to education is a smart investment.  As Secretary King said, every dollar invested in correctional education saves the government four to five dollars on re-incarceration.  Until we, as a country, are as committed to investing in preventing crime as we are in prosecuting it, our country will never be as safe or as just as it can or should be. 

From my perspective, we have a responsibility to unleash the transformative power of education – to allow individuals to define themselves as something more than their worst moment and to encourage them to value themselves and those around them.  Through the Pell Grant Pilot, inmates, many of whom suffer from a generational lack of access to education, can open doors to opportunities that were previously locked for them.  To be sure, when people break the law, they have to be held accountable, but a lifetime of punishment, often in the form of education, employment and housing barriers, does not serve justice nor does it make us safer.

Earlier this year, in April, I visited a federal prison near Houston, where I had the chance to speak with a number of women at the Bryan Correctional Institute.  They were readying themselves to return to society by taking advantage of the BOP’s various programs, from drug treatment and parenting classes to employment at Federal Prison Industries, BOP’s largest and most successful job training program.  During my visit, I was able to hear firsthand about their fears and concerns about returning home after they had served their sentences.

These women wanted to achieve the basic goals all of us want to achieve: a stable home and a steady job.  As a society with more than 600,000 prisoners leaving state and federal institutions every year, it is our collective responsibility to ensure they can reenter our society with the basic tools they need to be successful.  It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do and it’s one the best things that we can do to build safer communities.

That’s part of the reason I’m so excited about the Pell Grant Pilot Program.  But let me also assure you that we’re not stopping with the Pell Pilot.  We are working hard at the Department of Justice to prioritize the broader issue of correctional education.  As our prison population is beginning to decline and we lessen the burdens on a prison system that’s been overtaxed for years, we have a once-in-a-life opportunity to make meaningful change in the educational opportunities afforded to those in our care.  In these coming months, we will be laying out the framework for a new and better way of bringing high-quality education into the Bureau of Prisons.  

I’m proud of the progress that we’ve made thus far, but even more excited about the work ahead to bring the promise of educational opportunity to our citizens in prison.  Again, we are grateful for our partnership with the Department of Education and we will continue to push hard to do everything we can to reduce recidivism, expand opportunity and ensure that the men and women returning home from prison are ready for their second chance.  I hope you enjoy your time at today’s convening and I look forward to all that we can accomplish in the months and years ahead.  

Updated September 29, 2016