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Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates Delivers Remarks on Criminal Justice Reform at Columbia Law School


New York,
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Dean [Gillian] Lester, thank you for that kind introduction and for welcoming me to Columbia Law School.  It’s great to be here with the students, faculty and staff that make this school a world leader in legal scholarship and education.

Let me also thank the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity for hosting this event.  As someone who spent many years prosecuting public corruption cases in Atlanta,  I admire your efforts to promote honest effective government.  Nothing undermines the public’s confidence in our system of government like a public official who uses his or her position to line their own pockets.  So thank you for all the work you do.

[As Dean Lester mentioned] I’ve spent most of my adult life working in the criminal justice system.  I joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta as a line prosecutor in September of 1989 and I’ve been with the Justice Department ever since.  I believe in law and order and I’ve asked judges to impose tough sentences when I felt the facts required it.  But one of the first lessons I learned as a prosecutor remains as true today:  our job is not to win convictions, or to obtain the longest sentences possible.  Our job is to seek justice – to seek justice in each and every case.  That requires not only resolve and determination, but also empathy and sense of proportionality. 

These days, there’s a lot of talk about criminal justice reform.  We are at a unique moment in our history, where a bipartisan consensus is emerging around the critical need to improve our current system.  About a month ago, a coalition of republican and democratic senators unveiled a bill – called the sentencing reform and corrections act – to address proportionality in sentencing, particularly for lower level, non-violent drug offenders.  In short, we need to make sure that the punishment fits the crime.  Last week, I had the privilege of testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the many promising pieces of that legislation. 

And I know how badly we need reform.  As the Deputy Attorney General, I oversee day-to-day operations for the Justice Department, which includes not just our nation’s federal prosecutors, but also the FBI, DEA, ATF, U.S. Marshals Service and the federal prison system.  I see all sides of our criminal justice system and I can tell you confidently: the status quo needs to change.  

We need a new approach and we need a better approach.  We need to be willing to step back, look at how we’ve managed criminal justice in the past and be willing to adjust our way of thinking.   

I want to tell you about a recent trip I took to Charleston, South Carolina, that illustrates how a new way of thinking can work.  A few weeks ago, I visited with participants in a promising prisoner re-entry program and while I was there, I met two men, who I’ll call Bobby and Walter. 

Bobby was only in his late twenties, but he had already spent much of his life in and out of prison.  He admitted to making some bad decisions in his life - Bobby was definitely no angel.  Several months earlier, he had been arrested again and given a choice:  either go to prison for a long time, or successfully complete an alternative program.  He chose the program, but he wasn’t confident that he would make it through. 

But Bobby was lucky.  The folks running the program welcomed him and they were committed to making it work.  The program – called “Turning Leaf” – was collaboration between state and federal prosecutors, the courts, the city’s business community and a tough-but-fair executive director who cared passionately about her students.  Together, they not only nurtured Bobby, but they also demanded more of him than had ever been expected in the past.  They helped him better understand the dangerous choices he had made and with their help, Bobby found a job with a company willing to hire program participants.  Bobby didn’t have a car and he walked several miles each way to work every day.  You should have seen the pride on Bobby’s  face as his boss talked about how Bobby was always the first one to arrive at work, often a couple of hours early and the last to leave every day. 

In addition to helping participants find employment, one of the cornerstones of this program is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT.  Part of what makes CBT so interesting is that it focuses on getting people to “think differently” – in a sense, to try to re-program the brain to help people control their criminal impulses and make better decisions. 

To symbolize these efforts, the Turning Leaf participants told me that they had developed their own hand gesture.  Every time they got angry, or thought about lashing out, or were tempted to do something they shouldn't, they would lift their index and middle fingers and put them on their temple.  It was a small way of saying to themselves, “Stop. Think about what you’re doing.”  It gave them an extra moment to reflect on their decision-making.  If a friend called and wanted to get together to get high, two fingers to the temple.  If a girlfriend left a nasty voicemail:  two fingers to the temple.  Over and over, they learned to think differently, until it became second nature. 

While I was there, I also met Walter.  He was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Charleston and by all accounts, Walter was your traditional, old-school, tough-as-nails violent crime and drug prosecutor.  Walter was known to pack a gun around town.  Defendants knew who he was and they knew not to mess with him.  He was aggressive and he was usually seeking to send his defendants to prison for a long time. 

Not too long ago, Walter’s boss – the U.S. Attorney in South Carolina and a dear friend of mine – did something a little crazy.  He assigned Walter to supervise the Turning Leaf program for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.  Instead of sending people only to prison, now Walter’s job was to help offenders stay out of prison.  So here was this old-school prosecutor, responsible for helping offenders through the program turn their lives around and stay out of trouble.  As you might imagine, like Bobby, Walter was pretty skeptical at first.   But he had seen a few of his defendants go through the program and was intrigued with the idea.  As he worked closely with Bobby and others, over time, he learned about the challenges these men had faced in their lives –and the many barriers that remained ahead.  And by the time I met Walter; he had thrown himself into the program and spoke with the zeal of a convert.  In a recent email, this is what Walter said about the program and I quote: “I have spent a lifetime putting people in prison.  That is what we are trained to do.  I spent my career, in different jobs, using that tool.  But we have something now that we haven’t really had before.  An openness to trying new things in a holistic way.  Teaching a prisoner to change his thinking so as to change behavior.  Converting a defendant to a moral understanding of right and wrong.  Putting him on a path to employment and usefulness, even of serving others so that he ends his career committing crimes.  This saves him and prevents victimization of others.  Done right, this cognitive behavioral stuff is in full accord with what a prosecutor should be doing – to seek truth, serve justice and to do good.  To do right, always, no matter what.  So this new tool is a start to doing that very thing; it is a lovely experiment underway.  It has its dangers.  But done right, it can change the whole criminal justice system.”

So it wasn't just Bobby who had learned to think differently.  Walter had learned to think differently, too.  He discarded old assumptions and accepted new ideas, just as the participants in the reentry program had and found a new way of seeing the criminal justice system.  Walter had, in his own way, put two fingers to his temple. 

And that’s what we all need to do.  We need to think differently.  We need to look beyond our own experiences and accept that there may be new and better, ways of doing things.  I saw one example of that just this morning.  I visited a drug court in federal court in Brooklyn that focuses on giving offenders a chance to escape the grip of drugs.  Instead of lengthy prison sentences, the program is designed to hold the defendants accountable, but to do it in a way that offers support, drug treatment and job opportunities.  While it’s true that there are dangerous defendants from whom society needs to be protected, there are others, like the defendants I saw today, for whom alternatives to incarceration make a lot more sense. 

This new way of thinking is beginning to resonate in federal and state systems all across the country.  At the Justice Department, to achieve more proportional sentencing, we have directed prosecutors to stop charging mandatory minimum offenses for certain low-level, non-violent drug crimes.  The president has granted clemency to scores of individuals who received sentences longer than necessary under our harshest drug laws – with more to come in the months ahead.  Twenty-nine red states and blue states across the country have passed innovative reforms.  Even Congress – which doesn’t agree on much these days – is on the cusp of significant sentencing reform legislation. 

But if we are really serious about building safe communities, if we are really committed to justice, as a country, we have to be willing to invest in stopping crime before it starts.  We have to be willing to invest in breaking the cycle of generational lack of access to educational opportunity and resulting illiteracy and poverty.  We have to be willing to invest in real prevention and prisoner reentry opportunities and do it in a big systemic way, not just a smattering of pilot programs.  We all know that we can’t simply jail our way into safer communities.  But until we are willing to invest in preventing crime the same way we are willing to invest in sending people to prison, our communities will not be as safe nor will our system be as just as it should be.

When we talk about prevention, we need to include in that rehabilitation.  Because prisoner rehabilitation is crime prevention.  The fact is, more than 95 percent of all prisoners will eventually be released from prison.  And we know that as things currently stand, about 40 percent of federal prisoners and two-thirds of those released from state prisons will reoffend within three years.  We have to break that cycle. 

We also know that the best way to reduce recidivism is to reintegrate ex-offenders into our communities – they need stability, support and social ties to turn away from the errors of their past.  They need jobs and homes; friends and family.  Yet so many people in our society want nothing to do with anyone with a rap sheet.  There are too many people willing to pin a scarlet letter on those who have spent time in prison.  The irony, of course, is that this view is self-defeating – that by ostracizing this class of citizens, we only increase the risk of recidivism and we make our country less safe, not more. 

It is up to all of us to reject this way of thinking.  Rather than creating even greater distance between ex-offenders and the communities they’re re-joining, we should be focusing our energy on developing more effective paths for reentry.

We have much work to do.  I want to discuss two projects currently underway at the Justice Department, which we hope will have a positive impact on our reentry efforts in the federal prison system.

The first involves inmate education, specifically literacy.  It’s disturbing but true:  reading failure is the common thread among many of our social ills – academic failure, delinquency, violence and crime.  When a person cannot read, many of the daily tasks that we take for granted, like reading a job application, are much harder if not impossible.  When a person cannot read, they become frustrated, vulnerable and isolated.  As a juvenile court judge said recently, “When children don’t have language, their behavior becomes their language.”  These are precursors to crime.  With this in mind, it is not surprising that many inmates across the country have low literacy skills.  In fact, over 70 percent of inmates in American prisons – this is both state and federal prisons – cannot read above a fourth grade level.  And we also know that research shows that improved literacy substantially reduces the likelihood that an inmate will re-offend.  

I experienced this first hand when I was U.S. Attorney in Atlanta. Our office started a reentry program designed to match recently released ex-offenders with service providers.  We had forms for each to complete indicating what they needed, such as assistance with housing, substance abuse, employment, etc.  We had a lot of participants, but I couldn’t figure out why we were getting so few forms back.  And then I discovered that it was because some of the former offenders couldn’t read the forms. They weren’t going to raise their hands and tell us that; you can imagine what a humiliating experience that would be. But they weren’t able to take advantage of the assistance we wanted to provide because the educational system and then the prison system had twice already failed to give them access to the most basic of life skills – the ability to read.

Currently, the federal Bureau of Prisons helps more than 20,000 inmates obtain a G.E.D. It’s a good program, but it’s not enough.  In the coming months, we plan to take a hard look at the Bureau of Prison’s literacy efforts and roll out changes that will focus our efforts on core adult literacy.  While we can't be satisfied just with literacy, no one should leave the bureau of prisons without being able to read.

The second project involves job skills.  The federal bureau of prisons operates its own vocational program, known as Federal Prison Industries, or FPI.  Through FPI, inmates build a variety of high-quality products, from furniture to electronics, while also earning the money they need to pay down court-ordered obligations.  President Franklin Roosevelt signed federal prison industries into law in December 1934 and it just celebrated its 80th anniversary.  Over this long history, we’ve learned that FPI works.  Studies have shown that inmates who participate in FPI are significantly less likely to recidivate after returning home and more likely to get a job after prison.  The bottom line is that FPI is a win-win for the offenders and society at large.

Some people dismiss programs like FPI as so-called “prison labor.”  But FPI isn’t a prison labor program – it’s an educational job training program that teaches both technical vocational skills, as well as the soft skills that we take for granted but that aren’t necessarily part of these inmates’ background – things like being on time, following instructions and finishing a task.  Inmates are clamoring for the opportunity to develop these much-need job skills, as evidenced by the fact that FPI has a waiting list of 10,800 inmates who want to participate but are waiting for spots.

While FPI is a great recidivism-reduction program, reduced demand for its products and services has caused it to dramatically shrink over the past few years.  More than 12,000 inmates participate in FPI, but it was almost twice that size a decade ago.  Now more than ever, we need this program to work and over the next few months, we’ll be announcing substantial reforms to retool FPI to expand its scope so that more inmates get the training they need to be successful when they leave prison. 

But the job skills taught by FPI are only useful if companies are willing to hire men and women with felony convictions.  It’s hard enough to find a job; just imagine if you have “convicted felon” on your resume.  While some companies have demonstrated a willingness to look past an applicant’s criminal history, there are more employers who won’t even give an ex-offender a chance to compete.  Beyond job opportunities, we need more businesses to take an active role in the re-entry process.  We need companies to partner with prisons and re-entry programs, to help ex-offenders move seamlessly from prison life to a productive life.   Building safe communities is not solely the responsibility of law enforcement.  We all have an obligation, as citizens, to give those returning to society an opportunity, just a fighting chance, to live the lives we have.  So I challenge – and you should challenge – businesses and individuals to see this as part of our social responsibility as citizens – as a necessary step to create a safer and more stable society.  It is possible, but only if we convince them to think differently.

Achieving meaningful criminal justice reform will not be easy.  And we must all participate in this process, government and private citizens alike.  Three decades ago, when our country was focused just on being “tough on crime,” it was impossible to imagine that we would ever find a way to return proportionality to our sentencing laws.  But we are closer than ever, thanks to the sustained efforts of those willing to call out injustices and demand meaningful change.  It’s time that we collectively discard old assumptions and embrace new ideas.  In other words, it’s time we all collectively put two fingers to our temples.  Our nation and our fellow citizens deserve nothing less. 

Thank you.   

Updated November 14, 2016