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Remarks of Laurie Robinson, Acting Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

International Community Corrections Association
Public Policy Forum
Washington, DC
March 24, 2009

Thank you, Jane. I'm delighted to be here. I'd also like to note that my Senior Policy Advisor, Marlene Beckman - whom all of you know - had hoped to be here today, but she's at a meeting for me with the Associate Attorney General. I know many of you have worked closely with Marlene, and I believe ICCA honored her with its David Dillingham Public Service Award. Marlene has kept community corrections high on OJP's agenda over the years, and she'll continue to advise me on corrections and reentry issues now that she's returned to the front office!

I also want to thank Jane - both Janes - and the staff of ICCA for their leadership in community corrections. Thanks in great part to their efforts, and to the work of everyone in this room, there's a greater general understanding of the importance of community corrections. And indeed, the role of community corrections professionals is more significant than ever before.

My passion for your issues runs deep. Your work in community corrections is key to resolving the crisis that our nation currently faces in institutional corrections.

My interest goes back many years - back to my time with the American Bar Association's Section of Criminal Justice, beginning in the late 70s, and continuing throughout my career. I offer as proof my occasional use of outdated terminology - for example, calling community corrections centers halfway houses. I find myself still wanting to use that term. . . . Old habits die hard.

But I'm grateful for that personal history. I know from my work and my association with community corrections professionals like you that things like education, job training, drug treatment, and employment for returning offenders are not new issues. These things have always been important. But until recently, they haven't gotten the attention they deserve because others outside of the field haven't fully appreciated the nature and scope of the problem.

Fortunately, that's changing. Unfortunately, it's changing because our backs are against the wall, thanks to skyrocketing rates and costs of incarceration and a reentry problem in desperate need of remedy. Our Bureau of Justice Statistics tells us that there are 2.3 million inmates in state and federal prisons and jails. That's double the rate of incarceration of just 20 years ago. And 700,000 of those leave our prisons every year.

Prisoner reentry is a problem we can no longer afford to ignore.

I know I'm preaching to the choir. You were all doing reentry before it was even called reentry, and let me say how much I appreciate everything you do and have done to help offenders make the transition back into society. You've taught us some invaluable lessons about what it takes to get returning prisoners back into their communities in a way that is safe and productive.

I know this group is not one to rest on its laurels, but I'm going to make what I'm sure is an unnecessary plea: we need you to continue to help us understand the most effective way to get ex-offenders back home and contributing to their communities.

Effective reentry is a tall order, not only because the sheer number of returning offenders is so high, but because the neighborhoods and communities that should and must be our safety and support networks are struggling. It's one thing to meet the individual-level needs of offenders. It's another to make sure that the communities they go back to are able to facilitate positive change. We heard that from several experts who testified at the congressional reentry hearings a couple of weeks ago. Jeremy Travis - my good friend who directed OJP's National Institute of Justice while I was Assistant Attorney General under Janet Reno - said "the next chapter of innovation in this area should test ideas that attempt to change the environment to which individuals return."

President Obama and Attorney General Holder believe that both the individual and community contexts must be addressed. Both have worked on the front lines of their communities - the President as a community organizer, the Attorney General as a local prosecutor and local judge. They understand that returning offenders need a helping hand, and they know that a helping hand isn't much good if it simply guides them back into trouble.

Our first order of business is to help local organizations - community corrections centers, community and faith-based organizations, employment centers, and so forth - partner with institutional corrections and criminal justice agencies to ensure that offenders get appropriate services before they're released, while they're in transition, and when they're out in their communities.

As you all know, the President signed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act a few weeks ago, and $4 billion is now available to the Justice Department to support criminal justice efforts as a result. $2.7 billion of that money will be administered by the Office of Justice Programs. There are seven areas of funding under the Recovery Act. I'll talk a little about the two that are most relevant to this audience.

First, the lion's share of the money - $2 billion - will be available to local governments and states through the Byrne JAG formula grant program. These funds are intended to support a wide range of criminal and juvenile justice activities, including corrections and community corrections, treatment, prevention, victim services, and alternatives to incarceration. Because this is a formula program, and funds pass through units of governments, you'll need to work with your state and local governments to find out about funding availability. I encourage you to contact your State Administering Agencies for more information. You can find a list of those agencies on our Web site.

The solicitations for both the local and the state Byrne JAG programs are posted on our Web site - www.ojp.gov/recovery. Just to give you an idea of the timeframe, the deadline for applications from local governments is May 18th, and state applications are due April 9th.

The second program of most immediate interest to you is the Byrne Competitive Grants Program. That program makes $225 million available to community organizations, nonprofit groups, and local criminal justice agencies for a broad range of justice-related activities. That means that those groups can compete directly for funds. One of eight priority areas for that program is expanding the role of community corrections in prisoner reentry by increasing the number of neighborhood-based probation, parole, and community corrections officers. We'll also have an emphasis on community prevention, victim assistance, and problem-solving courts like drug courts. And we'll be looking at programs that promote evidence-based approaches, which I'll talk more about in a minute. And by the way, no match is required for funding under this program or any of the other Recovery Act programs, except one for tribal jail construction.

We just posted the solicitation for the Byrne competitive program on Thursday, and the due date for applications is April 27th. I encourage you to visit the Recovery Act home page on our Web site for the solicitation and for more information about the program. We'll also be posting some frequently asked questions specific to the Byrne competitive program on issues like eligibility, appropriate uses of funds, reporting, and a host of other issues. If you have any questions about the program, you can e-mail us at JAGRecovery@usdoj.gov, or call our toll-free number, 1-866-268-0079. You can also speak to one of the state policy advisors in BJA. There will be a link to those contacts at the bottom of the FAQs. They'll be glad to assist you.

Final note on Recovery Act mechanics: Please use the Grant Management System on our Web site instead of using Grants.gov. This will help ensure against any technical glitches that may come about as a result of overload of the Grants.gov Web site, which is a concern in light of the high volume of grant programs under the Recovery Act.

And one word about the timing: We plan to begin awarding these and other discretionary grants soon after the solicitations close. We're moving quickly to get this money out.

As you heard this morning from Gary Dennis in our Bureau of Justice Assistance, our Recovery Act programs aren't our only current funding opportunities. We also have a solicitation open for reentry demonstration projects under the Second Chance Act. President Obama supported Second Chance during his days in the Senate, and Vice President Biden was a primary sponsor. And I know ICCA was a strong backer, as well. Gary talked about the solicitation in the panel this morning, so I won't beat a dead horse, but I do want to emphasize that, even though only units of government are eligible to apply, we'll be giving priority to programs that collaborate with nonprofit organizations, including community corrections centers.

As you know, the omnibus bill that President Obama recently signed contains $25 million for reentry programs. That includes $10 million for nonprofits and community organizations to provide mentoring and other transitional services. As Gary mentioned, BJA will be posting a solicitation for that program in the coming weeks.

Also - and this is significant - the President's budget request to Congress for 2010 includes a total of $109 million for reentry programs. $75 million of that money would come to OJP for Second Chance Act programs. We'll have more information on that in the coming weeks.

I'd also like to talk about something that applies across the board in criminal justice, but that I think has special urgency in the area of corrections and reentry - and that is the need for more evidence-based approaches. This is something that I know ICCA has been concerned about for a long time. And I really applaud you for your leadership in this area. You have your annual "What Works" conference coming up in October, where you'll explore research in the community corrections area.

I've long been a huge proponent of backing our criminal and juvenile justice policies with solid research. Unfortunately, that's something we've been missing. We've been feeling our way far too long. It's time to bring the science into criminal justice practice. This is something I firmly believe in, and it's something President Obama and Attorney General Holder feel strongly about as well. You heard the President say it himself in his inaugural address - "We'll restore science to its rightful place." We want to know that the programs we fund are working, and we want to get the word out about those that are.

One good example of that is the work our National Institute of Justice has been doing to evaluate our Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative. Some of you know about that program. OJP supported 89 reentry programs across the country to work with repeat and violent offenders. NIJ is now conducting an extensive evaluation of those programs. Researchers have surveyed the program directors, and they interviewed some 2,500 men, women, and boys at four different points of the reentry process.

The first stage of the evaluation showed that participants received a range of services. It also found that the programs were instrumental in starting or improving statewide reentry efforts, and it found that they helped to foster sustainable collaboration with community agencies. The next phase of the evaluation - the impact phase - is ongoing, and we will be sending the evaluators to your research conference at the end of October to give you the results. . . so you will be among the first to hear those findings.

Gary talked this morning about the other Second Chance solicitation - for the National Adult and Juvenile Offender Reentry Resource Center. One of the goals of that center is to develop a national reentry research agenda. This is of critical importance to me. OJP should be providing leadership, not just in terms of funding and other resources, but in terms of improving knowledge of what works and disseminating that knowledge to practitioners. It is critical that professionals like you who do this work every day have the latest information, and that that information is based in sound science, not on subjective opinion or anecdote.

Not least among the issues that need to be explored through research is the effectiveness of intervention with youth. Jeff Slowikowski, the Acting Administrator of our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, will be part of the next panel, and he'll talk about some of the work we're doing in that area. But early intervention is another one of those issues that the Attorney General has championed throughout his career.

When he served as U.S. Attorney and Deputy Attorney General during the Clinton years, one of his signature issues was improving our understanding of - and response to - children and youth exposed to violence, and what early exposure to violence means for a child's future. He was very committed to making sure that young people who lived in violent settings were removed from those settings and given appropriate help. And I can tell you that he remains committed to this issue, and I want to help set in motion an agenda for providing research-based support for programs that seek to intervene with high-risk kids.

Finally, I want to return to something I mentioned earlier - the need to address the community context of reentry. There are a number of programs out there that are doing this very thing, and doing it well. Chicago has a program that works with gun and gang probationers and parolees that's helped to reduce homicide rates in the target neighborhood by 37 percent.

Boston has a multidisciplinary reentry initiative that's shown significant reductions in arrest rates for high-risk offenders. There are also reentry courts such as the one in Santa Clara County, California, that Judge Stephen Manley testified about at the congressional hearings. And there are other community-based interventions, not to mention the excellent work being done by community corrections centers throughout the nation.

OJP's Community Capacity Development Office is working with the many Weed and Seed sites across the country to establish or strengthen reentry programs. For example, the Weed and Seed site in Pawtucket, Rhode Island operates a program called Project RENEW, which is designed to help former prostitutes. The target neighborhood was hit especially hard by the economic downturn.

A high percentage of the target population are substance abusers, many dually diagnosed with mental illness. The RENEW staff works with community organizations to provide treatment and other services. But treating the individual offenders isn't enough. They also work closely with community organizations to prepare neighborhood residents for the return of these offenders.

RENEW has been very successful. Prostitution arrests are down 73 percent since 2006. That's a result of both targeted help for individuals and the site's attention to neighborhood revitalization, which of course is the key to any successful Weed and Seed program.

Our Community Capacity Development Office is working with Winston-Salem State University to provide training and technical assistance to Weed and Seed sites on developing and expanding their reentry efforts. Because offenders return to only a relatively few number of communities - many Weed and Seed sites - I believe that preparing these communities to receive returning prisoners is key to public safety.

As you can see, we have a lot going on - funding, research, training, capacity building. We're busy, but we're excited to be part of the work you're doing in community corrections. This Administration and this Attorney General truly understand the critical value of your work, and we want to support you in any way we can.

The days are long gone when we could afford to think of prisoner rehabilitation as charity work. Policymakers, politicians, and the public now understand that offender reentry is not just a compassionate thing to do. They now see it as an urgent social imperative. You have helped to raise that awareness, and I want to commend you for leading the way.

So thank you for your commitment. Thank you for your leadership. And thank you for letting me join you today to talk about this important issue.

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