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Remarks Of The Honorable David J. Hickton United States Attorney For The Western District Of Pennsylvania For Pennsylvania Association On Probation, Parole And Corrections 92nd Annual Training Institute
United States
Monday, May 20, 2013

Thank you Judge Ward for that warm and generous introduction.

It is great to be here with you today for PAPPC’s 92nd Annual Training focusing on Justice Reinvestment.

Under the banner of Justice Reinvestment, the Justice Department is helping to bring about big-picture criminal justice system reforms by reducing corrections spending and reinvesting in public safety strategies.

The importance of partnership between probation, parole and corrections officers federal, state and local law enforcement and the Department of Justice and U. S. Attorney’s Office cannot be overstated. This partnership is as critical as ever as we seek to explore and develop new ideas and practices to best enhance our work of protecting public safety during a time of extensive economic restraints.

Today’s Justice Department is leading the way in implementing evidence-based decision-making processes, drawing on rigorous scientific research, and seeking opportunities to leverage scarce resources to improve the strength and integrity of local justice systems – and broaden the impact of prevention, intervention, enforcement, and reentry programs.

Over the past 20 years, state spending on corrections has skyrocketed. Declining state revenues and other fiscal factors are straining many states’ criminal justice systems, oftentimes putting concerns about the bottom line in competition with public safety.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is an Office of Justice Programs across the board analysis of statewide crime and corrections data designed to help officials redirect public funds from costly prison building projects to cost-effective programs aimed at ensuring greater public safety. Through this Initiative, the Department of Justice and the Council of State Governments (CSG) identified 17 states which are cutting correction costs while reducing recidivism and improving safety.

Just last month, a new report entitled Lessons from the States: Reducing Recidivism and Curbing Corrections Costs Through Justice Reinvestment was released. This report summarizes the experiences of those 17 states participating in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which includes Pennsylvania.

As stated by Attorney General Eric Holder while announcing the release of the report, “Our nation pays a high price whenever our prisons and criminal justice systems fall short of delivering results that deter and punish crime, keep the American people safe, and ensure that those who pay their debts to society have a chance to become productive, law-abiding citizens.”

Based on the Justice Reinvestment Initiative analyses, the states have enacted legislation and implemented justice reinvestment policies which provide incentives for use of risk-based decision making, increase services and support for victims, target grants to law enforcement and establish statewide standards and training for probation agencies. The 17 states highlighted in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative have been able to achieve fundamental and positive reform because leaders from both sides of the aisle have come together to tackle these difficult issues.
According to the report, states are able to reach these goals when they:

  1. Conduct a comprehensive analysis of crime, arrest, conviction, jail, prison, probation and parole date;
  2. Engage diverse constituencies of elected and appointed leaders as well as criminal justice stakeholders;
  3. Focus resources on individuals most likely to reoffend;
  4. Reinvest taxpayer dollars in proven programs and strategies;
  5. Strengthen community supervision by responding to violations swiftly, proportionately, and with approaches that are evidence-based; and
  6. Reward the performance of local agencies whose actions result in cost savings.

It is the Department of Justice’s hope that the achievements of the 17 states highlighted in the report will emulated by other states across the country. As stated by OJP Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary, “this approach has shown that states don’t have to choose between safe communities and fiscal solvency. Both are possible.”

The urgency of reentry and reducing recidivism has been tied to the growing and very large U. S. prison population and the numbers of returning offenders.

The Obama Administration and the Department of Justice under Attorney General Eric Holder have made effective reentry a top priority. We are working on all fronts - and across many agencies - to promote viable reentry programs, explore innovative practices, support research and expand partnerships. We are addressing the issue from every angle, analyzing how reentry affects employment, health, education, housing, and family life.

  • The reality is that in America today:
    • in 28 children has a parent behind bars;
    • For African-American children, this ratio is roughly 1 in 9;
    • Today, some 2.3 million people - or more than 1 in 100 American adults - are behind bars in the United States.
    • In total, approximately 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons every year; and
    • Another 9 to 10 million cycle through local jails.

Reentry is not just a matter of public safety – it’s also an issue of housing and health care policy; a question of education and employment; and a fatherhood and family challenge that affects millions across the country every year.

When reentry fails, the costs-both societal and economic-are high. More than two-thirds of state prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release and close to half are reincarcerated. High rates of recidivism mean more crime, more victims and more pressure on an already overburdened criminal justice system.

Over the last four years, an emphasis on becoming smarter and tougher on crime has infused – and informed – the Department’s work on a range of policy questions. Nowhere is this clearer than in the work of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council – a group Attorney General Eric Holder first convened in 2011, which brings together leaders from 20 federal agencies to address reentry as more than just a criminal justice issue.

The Reentry Council’s leaders and partners, are fighting to remove barriers so that motivated individuals - who have served their time and paid their debts - are able to compete for a job, attain stable housing, support their children and their families, and contribute to their communities. The council is helping call attention to successful programs, striving to dispel myths about reentry, strengthening our policies, and engaging with an expanding group of allies to advance this comprehensive work.

The Council is working towards a mission to:

  1. Make communities safer by reducing recidivism and victimization;
  2. Assist those who return from prison and jail in becoming productive citizens; and
  3. Save taxpayer dollars by lowering the direct and collateral costs of incarceration.

If we are serious about making our communities safer and affording real opportunities for people to select the right path in life, good reentry work is vital. In April, 2011, the “Ban the Box” law was enacted in Philadelphia. In an effort make criminal background checks by employers fair for the formerly incarcerated, the new law requires employers remove from their employment applications the box asking if an applicant has been convicted of a crime. In addition, an employer cannot ask about an applicant’s criminal background until after the first interview. Under the Ban the Box law, employers are prohibited from making hiring decisions based on arrests or criminal accusations that do not result in a conviction.

In December, 2012, Pittsburgh City Council voted to stop requiring city job applicants and prospective vendors to state whether they have a felony record on city applications. Background checks will still be conducted for City of Pittsburgh job applicants; however, the applicants will be given the opportunity to explain the circumstances of an arrest or conviction.

The issues in reducing recidivism are complex and the stakes are high. The key to responding to these challenges lies in working together and fighting a dedicated and determined fight on all levels.

One effective tool is a reentry court. As many of you may know, reentry courts are a form of heightened supervised release that combines significantly increased judicial oversight and in-court hearings with the collaborative efforts of the Probation Office, the USAO, the Federal Defender's Office, and contract treatment and/or service providers.

Reentry court activities generally include:

  • A review of the participant's status and progress by the collaborative reentry team;
  • Periodic in-court hearings or meetings during which participants speak directly to the judge, in front of all other participants, about their own progress and the challenges they are facing. This group dynamic has proven very effective in criminal justice settings;
  • Use of various treatment and reintegration programs designed to help participants understand and improve their behavior;
  • Use of drug and alcohol testing and other checks to monitor compliance;
  • Applying graduated sanctions to offenders who do not comply with treatment requirements; and
  • Providing modest incentive rewards for sustained clean drug tests and other positive behaviors.

Studies show that reentry courts reduce recidivism. In 2011, the Department changed its policy to permit individuals with drug addictions to participate in pretrial diversion programs. The Department also changed its policy in 2011 requiring preapproval for USAO participation in a reentry program as long as certain conditions are present.

Reentry courts are in operation in approximately 55, about half, of the federal districts. Courts are typically set up on district by district basis.

In the Western District of Pennsylvania, our reentry court is RISE or Reentry Into Society Effort, and was initiated in 2010. RISE is a collaborative effort involving the Probation Office, the Federal Public Defender, the judiciary and the U. S. Attorney's Office to assist individuals under federal court supervision who are at a higher risk of recidivism become responsible citizens. This voluntary, 52-week program links participants to educational and literacy programs, employment and vocational and skills training, family counseling, healthcare and housing services, and mental health and substance abuse treatment. Participants are initially subjected to an intense regimen of treatment and frequent drug testing. Each participant must attend regularly scheduled RISE Program court sessions to report on their progress in the program and demonstrate accountability to their peers and to the court. Participants who fail to abide by the terms of the program face graduated sanctions.

Upon successful completion and graduation from the RISE program, participants are returned to traditional supervision with a one-year reduction award of their supervised release. Further reductions can be considered on a case-by-case basis for successful participants who remain on supervision after the one-year reduction.

It is too soon to render a full and fair assessment of our RISE Court effort. Intentions are good; the mechanics are there; and the participation from all levels of the system has been exemplary. However, the number of individuals who have progressed through the system is relatively small, and we need to do better.

I am proud to say that the commitment and effort highlighted in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is reflected right here in our District. Programs such as the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative and Federal Workforce Development Initiative are targeted at improving public safety, reducing recidivism and preventing the disintegration of communities and families impacted by crime and incarceration.

The Jail Collaborative has received over $1,300,000 dollars in funding from the federal government and has been identified as one of the most promising programs in the Nation. The Jail Collaborative has brought together jail and court officials with the county health department and the county department of human services. Together, these agencies have devised a screening and treatment initiative that has not only reduced the recidivism rate by half – when comparing participants to a control group – they have also secured a return-on-investment of roughly six dollars saved for every dollar spent on the program.

The simple inclusion of financial, vocational and family counseling in anticipation of release has replaced the senseless prior practice of abruptly releasing an offender with no tools to survive, often without proper clothing, no housing, no transportation and no hope.

The reentry landscape has been improved by the work of the private sector from employers willing to afford a fighting chance through jobs to labor unions offering education and retraining.

Family and life sustaining employment is vital to build safer communities; and it is essential in our efforts to reduce recidivism. Through our community outreach, we have learned of many who are willing to train and employ formerly incarcerated individuals who seek to redirect their paths toward becoming responsible citizens.

The IBEW Local # 5 is doing great work providing opportunities for thousands of Western Pennsylvania residents to train for the jobs of today and tomorrow in a state-of-the-art facility in a program funded by the local union. Their Commercial Apprenticeship Program is a five-year program in which students receive classroom, hands-on and on-the job-experience hours in journeyman wireman electrical work. Upon completion of the curriculum and job experience hours, the students are eligible to take the IBEW Journeyman wireman examination. Graduates who successfully complete the apprenticeship program and pass the examination are qualified to work in residential, commercial and industrial construction, and in all aspects of the electrical and teledata industry. The jobs for these graduates, many of whom have struggled to find work and opportunity, including students who are reformed offenders, offer the hope and dignity of work.

The Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, which was formerly the Shelton Trade Center is housed in the former boiler room of the Hosanna House services building in Wilkinsburg. Steve Shelton established the Institute to give young men and women a chance to develop skills in the trades to make them employable and give them a chance to increase their earning potential, as well as to fill the imminent masonry trade work force shortage predicted for the future. Majority of the Institute’s students and graduates have spent time in prison, juvenile centers or rehabilitation facilities.

Last year, I taught a class for the U. S. Steelworkers' Green Jobs Training Program on time management and time resolution. This program is a collaboration of the United Steelworkers, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and GTECH Strategies. The program's motto is "Breaking the Chains of Poverty." Men and women from low-income families, many of whom have been in jail or prison, are trained in a number of certification programs relating to green jobs. The programs include Federal OSHA certification; certification in hazardous waste operations and emergency response; weatherization and energy auditing; mold remediation and greenhouse gas reduction. Completion of this program provides these individuals with invaluable skills and knowledge in today’s energy efficient and conservation-conscious job market and helps to place them in jobs once they are certified. The training is funded and provided at no cost to the students. This factor alone helps to reduce recidivism by relieving some of the financial pressures of previous offenders which could lead to poor choices and re-offending.

All participants of the Green Jobs program are tested for drugs as the program certifies that its graduates are drug free. Those who are not truly committed to making a change usually wash out during the required drug testing.

Changing your life is difficult--not everyone succeeds initially. Graduates of reentry programs often represent a dedicated few.

However, the students I met at previous graduation ceremonies and during the class I taught, many of whom have criminal records, were committed and simply wanted a chance to turn their lives around and to provide for themselves and their families in a positive manner.

My own experiences with the commitment of law enforcement; those willing to train and employ former offenders; supportive faith-based communities and those individuals who are working hard at a second chance to turn their lives around have lifted my spirits and given me hope that we can succeed in this important work.

While reentry work is necessary and important, and it is sensible and practical in our stewardship of our collective responsibilities, stressing the need to reduce recidivism is also the right thing to do. We must never give up on individuals or our community. We know that the righteous suffer no failure unless we give up.

I commend all of you and each of the agencies involved for your commitment to protecting and enhancing public safety and reducing recidivism. I pledge that we in the U. S. Attorney's Office will continue to be faithful partners.

Thank you.

Updated July 14, 2015