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U.S. Attorney Fishman: Jersey City Re-entry Conference, April 2, 2015

Thank you Jim [McGreevy] for that very nice introduction.  And thanks to you, Mayor Fulop, and your colleagues for making reentry such a priority.

In 2008, Amare Tyrell, a member of a gang known as the Double I [“EYE”] Bloods, was arrested with eight other defendants as part of a joint federal-state investigation of heroin and cocaine distribution here in Essex County.  At a bail hearing before Magistrate Judge Arleo, he was ordered detained pending trial.  A few months later, Tyrell pleaded guilty to having participated in the drug distribution conspiracy.

Early the next year, he stood in a federal courtroom in Newark, waiting for the judge to impose sentence.  The courtroom was empty, except for the usual array of people who are essential for that kind of proceeding:  his lawyer, the judge, the Assistant U.S. Attorney, the probation officer, a court reporter, a clerk, and some court security.  Although it was in some ways a relatively routine proceeding for everyone else, the defendant listened as the judge pronounced the words that would change his life forever:  “I sentence you to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons for a term of 60 months and four years of supervised release.”

Those years of incarceration passed and, with credit for good time, Amare got out of jail and started his term of supervised release in January of 2013.  Two weeks ago, on October 14, at about 5 pm, the same man was once again in a courtroom in that same federal courthouse.  A similar cast of characters was in the courtroom:  a judge, some public defenders, people from my office, some others from probation, court security, and the clerk’s office.  He was again in front of Magistrate Judge Arleo.  And he listened again as she uttered words that would again change his life forever:  “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

The courtroom, this time with its spectator section completely filled, burst into applause and cheers as he kissed his new wife.  There was wedding cake and, because it was a federal courtroom, alcohol-free sparkling beverages and water.

How did we get here?  You would think that, after his previous experience with the justice system, being back inside that courthouse would – except for prison – be the last place he’d want to be.  Why did he and his fiancée choose as their wedding venue what had been the scene only five years earlier of the lowest moment in his life?  Why did they pick as the person to perform the ceremony the same judge who almost five years earlier had ordered him detained without bail?  And how did it happen that the wedding guests who were cheering and hugging the happy couple included not only their friends and family, but me, several of my colleagues, Deputy U.S. Marshals, courthouse personnel, and other defendants who had recently left prison themselves?  Have they – and we – walked through the looking glass?  The short answer is “no.”

We have a crisis.  Right now, about 1.5 million people are in federal and state prisons, and there are hundreds of thousands more in local jails. As an estimate, that’s more than 1 in 100 adults behind bars.  More than 200,000 are in the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons, and it is my job, and the job of the people who work in my office, to put several hundred more there every year.  In our judgment, they have committed crimes for which jail is the appropriate punishment.

But for almost all of them, incarceration doesn’t and shouldn’t last forever.  More than 95 percent of federal prisoners will be released and, when they are, the vast majority will go home – or somewhere near where they once called home.  For years, they’ve carried physical or mental pictures of the places, family and friends they left behind.  Sometimes that’s what kept them going.  But when they get out of jail, home may not be what they remembered or imagined.  Many come back to families that are barely intact, if they are there at all.  Neighbors have moved, stores have opened or closed, kids have grown up, friends and acquaintances have disappeared, or been shot, arrested, or killed.  Even the technology has changed; maybe they’ve seen an iPhone on TV – but many of them have never held, much less used, one.  So we know that when you get out of jail, and you’ve been there for a while, the world can be an intimidating and even a forbidding place.

There’s a Mike Tyson story that captures it perfectly.  Once, when preparing for a fight, he was asked by a reporter about his opponent.  “I asked him how he thought he could beat you,” the reporter said.  “He told me has a plan.”  “Everybody’s got plans,” Tyson answer, “until they get hit.”  And that’s exactly right:  these guys all have plans for when they get out.  But then they get smacked with the reality of being back on the outside.

For these reentering prisoners, housing isn’t easy to find, and jobs are even tougher.  It’s hard enough in today’s economy for people without criminal records to find work.  Imagine what it’s like for those who just got out of prison to compete in that environment.

And then add in the educational obstacles. Of the 20 fastest growing occupations, 13 require postsecondary education. But only 22 percent of prisoners have any postsecondary experience, compared to more than half of the rest of us. Two in five prison and jail inmates – 40 percent – lack a high school diploma or its equivalent.

And it turns out that the ability to find a job after being released from prison is one of the greatest predictors of success on the outside.  But without a job, and without a decent place to live – the foundations that the rest of us work so hard to build and maintain and sometimes take for granted – the recently released are often alone, surrounded by people trying to tempt them back into bad habits and old relationships.  And if you add in the fact that many may still be on the hook of an addiction, there are often too few or no alternatives to falling, or stumbling, back into a life that they want to avoid if they can.

So guess what?  A huge number of them fail.  Nationally, two-thirds of state prisoners will be arrested again within three years of their release.  Released federal prisoners do a little better, because of the low risk, largely white-collar offenders.  But for those really at risk – it’s close to 50 percent in the first three years after they come out.

That recidivism has terrible consequences for the lives of the offenders and their families.  It has very serious implications for public safety.  And with resources already severely strained at the federal, state and local levels, it just costs too much money. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that more than $74 billion is spent on federal, state and local corrections annually. And it costs nearly $30,000 to house a federal inmate for a year.  That’s a lot of money that could be used so much more productively.

So three years ago, I asked people in my office – and then in the rest of our court family – if we could do better.  I asked if, collectively, we had the resources – the time, the money, the commitment – to try something new:  a prisoner reentry program.  There were others who were already running or participating in reentry projects around the country, but we had never done it in federal court in New Jersey.  Those conversations, and the hard work of a lot of people, led to the development of the first federal reentry court in New Jersey – what we call our “ReNew” program.

Here’s how it works:  We invite – in person – those who are leaving federal prison, who are coming back to this area and are at serious risk of reoffending.  This is not a program for white-collar criminals who just did 18 months in a minimum security prison.  They may well have much better foundations to which they can return.  The participants in our program typically were convicted of distributing narcotics, selling and transporting firearms, and other very serious and dangerous crimes. They have served lengthy terms – in some cases as many as 14 years – in federal prison and were predicted to be some of the most likely to recidivate.

The reward?  A year shaved off their terms of supervised release.  That’s the explicit carrot.  But the real attraction turns out to be the services and the attention.  For a year after they start the program, they are closely supervised, meeting bi-weekly with the judge and others on the team.  They are supported in obtaining housing, jobs, education, counseling, and legal assistance, and are held accountable for their nearly inevitable mistakes as they work against daunting obstacles and long-established patterns.

In this program, they voluntarily come to the MLK Courthouse every other Tuesday at 5:00.  At first, it looks like a lot of other proceedings.  Judge Madeline Cox Arleo sits on the bench. In the well of the courtroom, at the two tables usually occupied by lawyers or their clients, there are a couple of lawyers from the federal Public Defender’s Office; four people from my Office; and at least one or two probation officers. And the participants -- there are currently about 18 – sit on the benches usually occupied by the public and the press.

One at a time, Judge Arleo invites each of them by name to sit at counsel table with the probation officers.  “How is your daughter,” she asks one. “Tell me about your new apartment,” she inquires of another. “Can we help you print your resume?” “Do you want a lawyer to help you get a payment plan so you can get your driver’s license back?” “Do you have to leave early today to get to class?” And, finally, “Is there anything else we can do?  What do you need?”

And in between those court sessions, members of my office and court personnel are editing their resumes, teaching them how to interview for a job, and tutoring them in math. The judge is helping them to register for college, find apartments, and get jobs – she literally took one to a charter school to help him enroll his child.

Often the participants start with great skepticism, wariness and suspicion.  And, maybe not surprisingly, we weren’t quite sure what to expect either.  Remember:  the last time those defendants were in that courthouse, lawyers from my office were asking a judge to send them to prison for a substantial period of time. The last time those defendants were in that courthouse, a judge explained why the things they had done and the crimes they had committed required that they receive a meaningful term of incarceration.

Because of those challenges, it isn’t all smooth sailing. They have to work long hours at difficult jobs – sometimes more than one – and pursue challenging education and other programs to make progress. Some have family members who aren’t supportive and others have the wrong friends who want to reunite with their old buddies. Some just aren’t quite ready to turn away from their previous lives.

So, like everybody else, some of our participants make mistakes.  There are excuses, impediments, and apologies. And there are sanctions. Some have to stay in the program for longer, losing credit.  Some end up being directed to do some community service and others get some additional house arrest.  But all of it – all of it – is geared toward getting these individuals back on their feet, ready and able to make it. And every two weeks, they remind us why this work is so important and they impress us with their ability to evolve and persevere.

And none of it would work if the participants weren’t committed.  Because we know that it isn’t enough just to provide the right services; we have to provide them at the right time in the right place.  Former offenders are at a unique crossroad – poised either to become law-abiding contributors or to become frequent flyers in the criminal justice system. They need to know the path of redemption is theirs to choose – and that they will be supported in their journey and their decision to leave what is familiar and trade it for the prospect of a better future.

In July, the first six of our participants graduated.  And I’ll tell you more about that in a few minutes.  But now that our reentry court is up and running, we’re doing more.

  • First, we’re thinking about how to scale it up.  It takes a lot of attention from a lot of people to help those 18 people in the program.  We’re trying to figure out how we can grow.
  • Now that we’re up and running in Newark, we’re expanding next month into our federal courthouse in Camden.  And once that works, it’s on to Trenton.  But that will take time.
  • With New Jersey Acting Attorney General John Hoffman, I’ve started a reentry council to bring together all those in the state and federal system who are working on these issues so that we can learn from each other and leverage what we know, what we have access to, and what we’re doing.
  • And next month, when all 93 U.S. Attorneys gather in Washington – that’s all of my colleagues from around the country – for our annual conference, we will spend a full day talking about nothing but reentry.

So how are we doing?  How are they doing?

Last July we graduated the first 6 participants in our ReNew program.  I can say, without equivocation, that it was the most moving two hours I have ever spent in a federal courtroom.

Chief Judge Simandle came up from Camden to preside.  Judge Arleo sat next to him on the bench.  The courtroom was filled with the participants in the reentry court, their families, people from every part of the court family, and members of the public and press.

After a few speeches, including one by me, the probation officer who supervises each of our participants stood at counsel table and, for each of the graduating participants, made a formal motion for the Chief Judge to reduce the term of supervised release by a year.  One by one, the probation officer recited the progress of each graduate, and what that person had achieved since leaving prison.  Each description was a triumph.

After each one, Judge Arleo added her own impressions and then recommended that the application be granted, which the Chief Judge then did.

And then, in what was – at least for me – completely unexpected, the first graduate walked to the podium and spoke.  And because of the group dynamic, and a little bit of peer pressure – both of which are a big part of the program’s success – each of the graduates spoke to this very full courtroom.  And each one was articulate, moving, and profound – and filled with gratitude.

One program participant told a story at his graduation that has really stuck with me:

One evening, one of the federal public defenders involved with the program invited this fellow to her office. She had pulled together some linens and curtains to help him set up his new home. It was a lot to carry all the way to his car.  So maybe without thinking too much about it, she offered him a ride. The graduate was emotional when he described what that meant to him.  After all, she knew everything about him.  We all do.  She knew about his past, his conviction, his membership in the Bloods, a seriously violent street gang.  He knew there was a time in his life when she would have been petrified – and legitimately so – to be around him by herself.  But here she was, inviting him into her car for the four- or five-block ride to his.  He said he knew then that he had turned a profound corner, that his life had really changed.  Because she trusted him.

All of the participants in our reentry court certainly had good reason to believe that we would never trust them.  And, to be fair, many of the participants never imagined that they could trust federal law enforcement and a federal judge. But over time, it became clear to them that what we want is for all of them to succeed.  And for us, it became clear that they want exactly the same thing for themselves – to reimagine their lives and take responsibility for making it real.

This is a very exciting time for those of in law enforcement.  Just like the participants in our program, we are examining our own roles and responsibilities.  We are thinking hard about who and how we charge; we are reevaluating who goes to jail and for how long; and we are using new tools and new ideas to make our streets and neighborhoods safer.  We are seizing the opportunity to reimagine what effective law enforcement means in the 21st century.  I can’t tell you what a privilege it is to be part of that, and to have the opportunity to share my excitement with all of you.

As we turn the corner into spring, and enter the holy weeks of Passover and Easter, it is the perfect time to think about and recommit to the ideas of renewal and redemption.  I thank everyone in this room for the work you to make that spirit real.

Thank you very much.

Updated January 19, 2023