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Remarks of Mary Lou Leary, Acting Assistant Attorney General
"Reentry: A Call to Action"
Office of Justice Programs

American Bar Association 2009 Fall Meeting
Friday, November 6, 2009
Washington, DC

        Thank you, Joe. I'm pleased to be here.

        Just a word of thanks to Joe and the ABA for setting up today's session and for their interest in the topic of prisoner reentry. As a former prosecutor, I know that our nation's district and commonwealth attorneys have a lot on their plates, so I'm grateful that you've all chosen to take on this issue.

        Reentry has fast become an issue of concern for all of us in the criminal justice field.  So many people are coming out of our prisons and jails every year – and right back into the communities and the settings where they got in trouble in the first place.  Given that only a small percentage of these offenders get even a modicum of help preparing for return to those communities, we shouldn't be at all surprised at what we've been seeing – a great majority of those offenders committing additional crimes and coming right back into the system.  That's more work for prosecutors.  It's more public dollars being spent.  It means more victims.  And it means that the neighborhoods these offenders call home are no safer than they were before.

        I know the panel that will be up here shortly will talk about some of the data behind reentry, but let me give you just a couple of stats from our agency to put my remarks in context.  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.  More than 700,000 of those leave our prisons every year.  As of the end of 2007, more than 5 million men and women were supervised in the community, either on probation or on parole.  That's about 1 in every 45 American adults.

        You can call it a vicious cycle or a gathering storm, or any number of other colorful metaphors.  I call it a public safety crisis.

        Addressing this crisis is a priority for this Administration and for this Attorney General.  And we're doing a number of things at the Office of Justice Programs to meet those challenges.

        Our first order of business is to address the reentry needs of those who will – at some point – be released from prisons and jails – and that's about 95 percent of all prisoners.  Those needs range from substance abuse and mental health treatment, to job training and housing, to family reunification services, among other things.

        In OJP, we're working with local organizations – probation and parole agencies, community corrections centers, community and faith-based organizations, employment centers, and other groups – to help them 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.

        Last month, we awarded more than $28 million under the Second Chance Act to help in this process. These grants will do several things, including providing mentoring, literacy classes, job training, education, and mental health counseling for adult AND juvenile offenders.

        We also funded the creation of a National Reentry Resource Center, which is now up and running and is being managed by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. The Resource Center will provide up-to-date information about promising practices and research in reentry, and it will make training and technical assistance available to states, localities, and tribes to help them develop evidence-based reentry programs.

        Next year, the President has asked for a total of $100 million under the Second Chance Act. And we anticipate that $10 million of that will go to research and evaluation.

        That gets me to another element of our work in the reentry arena – research and the promotion of evidence-based practices.

        This has been a mantra of the Attorney General's – the need to be smart on crime by developing data-driven approaches. And this is something that we've placed a top priority on in OJP.

        One of our most important roles is to support basic criminal justice research, and to help practitioners in the field know and apply the latest science to their work.

        We've been working for the last several months on an agency-wide effort to integrate science and research into our programmatic activities. We call it the Evidence Integration Initiative, and it has three aims:

  • First, to improve the quantity and quality of evidence that we generate through our research, evaluation, and statistical functions.
  • Second, to better integrate evidence in program and policy decisions.
  • And third, to improve the translation of evidence into practice.

        Our goal is to help the field better understand what has been shown to work, based on accepted scientific principles. This goes for reentry and corrections issues as much as it does for any other area of criminal and juvenile justice.

        In fact, we're already supporting some exciting reentry-related research. I don't know how many of you are familiar with the research being done by Al Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura. They're looking at developing an actuarial model to determine when an ex-offender's risk of committing another crime declines to the level of the general population. One of their findings thus far is that first-time arrestees who remained arrest-free for three to eight years were no more likely to commit another crime than those who had never been arrested. In other words, they had been redeemed. In fact, we call this the "redemption study."

        This could fundamentally change the way we view ex-offenders and their potential to reintegrate into society. For example, it could conceivably remove much of the bias of employers who are reluctant to hire ex-offenders. Since finding gainful employment is one of the keys to successful reentry, this research could have huge implications.

        I'm also excited about a grant we recently awarded to the ABA Fund for Justice and Education to look at the impact of collateral sanctions and discretionary disqualifications on reentry. These sanctions obviously affect an ex-offender's ability to successfully reintegrate, and it may be time to reconsider how they're used or to determine whether there should be additional provisions for relief. But without an inventory of what those sanctions are and where they're imposed, it's difficult to tell whether they need to be modified or, in some cases, even abolished. That's what this project will do. It will support a comprehensive review of state laws and regulations and survey legal professionals for their experience with these sanctions. This will hopefully give us a better understanding of what prosecutors' offices can do to help improve reentry practices.

        And since the main ingredient of an evidence-based program is the data showing whether it works or not, our National Institute of Justice continues to support rigorous evaluation of reentry programs. Right now, we're finishing up an evaluation of our Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative, which supported 69 state and local reentry programs across the country. So far, we've found that these programs were able to develop efforts that were tailored to community needs and that funds helped to foster sustainable collaboration with community agencies. We plan to have the findings available in the near future.

       Yet another element of effective reentry is addressing its community context. As I suggested earlier, a major obstacle to successful reentry is the neighborhood to which an offender returns.

       One of the things we know about crime is that it tends to concentrate in just a few areas. For example – just to take one city – corrections spending on offenders from Wichita, Kansas is estimated to be almost $29 million. But 40 percent of that amount – or over $11 million – is spent on offenders who live in a single district. And to top it off, another almost $9 million in taxpayer money goes for food stamps, unemployment, and family assistance for residents of that same district. This is pretty convincing evidence that a community's health is an indicator of an offender's chance at successful reintegration.

       Effective reentry is a challenge, not only because the sheer number of returning offenders is so high, but because the neighborhoods and communities that should 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're working toward this goal through a project we call Justice Reinvestment, which is being led by the Council of State Governments Justice Center with support from Pew Charitable Trust's Center on the States. The purpose of this program is to help states analyze their offender population and determine what resources are needed in the communities that they come from and return to. The idea is both to reduce recidivism and to avoid the costs associated with more prison space.

       We've seen some very encouraging results. In Texas, a bi-partisan group of legislators commissioned an analysis of its prison population from the Justice Reinvestment project, then as a result of that assessment, decided that, instead of spending half-a-billion dollars on additional prison space, it would appropriate a quarter-billion dollars on substance abuse, mental health, and intermediate sanction programs for people who are supervised and would otherwise have been revoked to prison.

       This has yielded remarkable results. Among other positive changes, parole revocations dropped 25 percent, which is amazing. I think it's a great example of what can happen when legislators, policymakers, and practitioners put what's best for the long term ahead of political expediency.

       And while I'm talking about the community context of reentry, I just want to touch on the role of poverty and race. There can be no question that the indigent and minorities are tremendously over-represented in our justice system, and we need to figure out how to remedy that.

       There's a growing body of research that shows that the perceived legitimacy of our justice system institutions is closely linked to their effectiveness. In other words, when the public believes that justice system professionals are biased and unfair, citizens are less likely to cooperate, and this lack of trust can lead to a breakdown in public safety.

       We need to think seriously about how to repair these breaches of trust, and to figure out how we can gain the public's confidence and support. This happens when criminal justice agencies – particularly law enforcement and prosecutors' offices – engage with their communities. And it happens when those of us in positions of authority show a willingness to take ownership of a larger problem instead of just writing off an offender – especially a young offender.

       This is an important part of reentry, as well – sending the message that many offenders – in spite of their criminal pasts – do have the potential to become contributing members of society. If we show that we believe that's possible, then the chances are good that they – and the communities they come from – will as well.

        Thank you.


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