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Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, at the White House Meeting with County Officials


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Ron. I’m really pleased to be here, and I’m very glad to have a chance to talk about some of the work we’ve been doing at the Department of Justice to support counties, particularly with regard to managing jail populations.

I want to begin by acknowledging our friends at the National Association of Counties (NACo) for their leadership in this area. We have a long history of working with NACo on many issues, jail management and jail reentry among them.

I also want to mention Art Wallenstein, who used to work for Ron in King County, Washington. Art was instrumental – pivotal, really – in helping OJP begin focusing its reentry work on counties almost a decade ago when he chaired the first national roundtable on the topic of jail reentry.

I’d like to give this issue – and my agency’s piece of it – some context. The most recent numbers from our Bureau of Justice Statistics tell us that there are almost three-quarters of a million people in America’s jails on a given day. But we also know that due to the short and transitory stays of jail inmates, a far greater number cycle in and out of jails every year. There are almost 13 million jail admissions and releases annually, involving about 10 million individuals.

We also know that almost two-thirds of those in jail are not convicted offenders but defendants awaiting trial – and they’re disproportionately poor. And, as you know, many are held simply because they can’t post bail. Human Rights Watch recently analyzed cases in New York City and found that, of more than 19,000 cases in which bail was set at $1,000 or less, 87 percent of defendants didn’t post bail – and spent an average of more than two weeks in jail. So there’s clearly a strong link between financial means and jail time.

And think about the cost! A huge financial burden on counties. Housing pretrial detainees who can’t afford bond costs counties some $9 billion every year.

Many of these pretrial detainees also lose their eligibility for health and other benefits – at least temporarily – even though they haven’t been convicted. And when they come back out and need health care, they have to rely on emergency rooms and other urgent care, and that comes at a high price to taxpayers.

So we’ve got major opportunities to work with inmates on both ends of the process – at the front end, with pretrial defendants, who, as I mentioned, make up the majority of jail inmates, and on the back end, as inmates are released and reenter their communities.

On the front end, we’ve been working to support jurisdictions in their efforts to provide effective pretrial services and to promote evidence-based pretrial decision-making.

For example, we brought together leading researchers and professionals to determine how to make risk assessment an integral part of the pretrial landscape. We published a report as a result of that session that captures what experts view as the best way to manage defendant risk and ensure effective release and detention decisions.

We also have a guide specifically for county officials called Jail Population Management: Elected County Official’s Guide to Pretrial Services, which we published in partnership with NACo and the Pretrial Justice Institute. This emphasizes the important role all of you have in ensuring fair and effective pretrial management. You can find both of these documents on our Web site – .

Let me also mention that at the end of this month, the Justice Department will be hosting a National Symposium on Pretrial Justice, bringing together leaders in the pretrial field and other criminal justice stakeholders to talk about how we can achieve safe and fair pretrial release and diversion practices in our communities.

We’ve also supported counties in their efforts to adopt evidence-based reentry practices. For example, with funding we receive under the Second Chance Act, we have supported a collaboration in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania between the jail, the county health department, and the county’s Department of Human Services. They do intensive screening at intake, and then the partners meet monthly to plan in-jail, transitional, and post-release programs. This approach has been effective in reducing recidivism and in saving the county money.

This is one of more than 250 programs we’re funding under the Second Chance Act to support inmate reentry. And more than 60 of our grants have gone to counties.

Improving reentry programming is a top priority at the Justice Department and a major public safety initiative of this Administration.  In January, Attorney General Eric Holder convened the first meeting of the Federal interagency Reentry Council, which includes seven Cabinet secretaries and other federal agency heads.

We want to do our part to help you – at the local level – to improve reentry outcomes.  And so we’re working together to coordinate and leverage federal resources and to remove federal barriers that may now get in your way.

As part of that, we’ve just released a series of what we call “MythBusters” that help clarify existing federal policies that affect formerly incarcerated individuals and their families in areas such as public housing, access to benefits, parental rights, employer incentives, and more.

What we’re trying to point out is that some federal laws and policies are actually narrower than commonly perceived. In several areas, states and localities have broad discretion to determine how policies are applied – and in some cases, statutory barriers don’t exist at all, or federal policies actually contain incentives for helping returning inmates. Let me give you a few examples.

As Ron will attest, public housing is one of the issues we hear about most in terms of reentry barriers. The myth is that all people with criminal records are banned from public housing, but the reality is that Department of Housing and Urban Development policy prohibits admission for only two types of offenses – sex offenders who are subject to lifetime registration requirements and those convicted of producing methamphetamine on the premises of federally assisted housing. Aside from these two relatively narrow categories, public housing authorities have considerable discretion.

Another “MythBuster” tackles Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The myth here is that a parent with a felony conviction can never receive TANF assistance. The fact is that the ban only applies to convicted drug felons, and 39 states have actually modified the ban, or eliminated it altogether.

Another myth is that there’s a blanket ban on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – or SNAP – benefits for all felons. The reality is that this ban, too, only applies to convicted drug felons and that states have an opportunity to opt out of or modify the ban – and most have.

And the Veterans Administration and Social Security Administration each have “MythBusters” about their pre-release application procedures, which allow prisoners to do the legwork while still incarcerated so that benefits can be reinstated immediately upon release – when assistance can make the most difference.

So this is the type of information that’s included in these one-page “MythBusters.” We released the first 13 yesterday, and several others are in development. These and other materials are now available on the National Reentry Resource Center Web site that we have set up and fund. And we brought copies of these for you, as well as a “Reentry in Brief” paper that outlines the issues the Federal Reentry Council is working to address.

And I want to mention a resource specifically for county officials that we developed in partnership with the Urban Institute. It’s called The Elected Official’s Toolkit for Jail Reentry. It provides a wealth of information, including background and statistical information, promising programs, and tips on how to get buy-in from your stakeholders. We brought a flyer here to show where you can access the full document. And this is also available on our National Reentry Resource Center Web site.

Finally, let me just mention briefly our Justice Reinvestment initiative. Put simply, this is a data-driven policy and legislative planning process designed to reduce correctional costs and reinvest resources in high-stakes communities. A number of states have already been engaged in this work to considerable success, and we’ve been working to actively engage counties, as well.

We’re now working with 10 counties to help them analyze data and determine the best approach to realizing savings that can then be reinvested to reduce jail populations while ensuring public safety in the hardest hit communities.

And to that end, we need of course to be thinking about alternatives to jail. Incarceration is not always the best option, either from an individual offender standpoint or from the standpoint of public safety – and certainly from a cost perspective. We should consider, as I know many of you are, alternatives like treatment, fines, and supervision in the community.

This is a very quick overview of our work in this area, but I’m delighted to be here and look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas a little later. Thank you.

Updated September 17, 2014