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Remarks of Mary Lou Leary, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

Vermont Reentry Summit
Keys to Offender Reentry: A Collaborative Approach

Friday, September 9, 2011
Montpelier, VT

     Thank you. It's great to be here today and to share this stage with so many distinguished public servants: Senator Leahy, Governor Shumlin, Assistant Attorney General Schroeder and U.S. Attorney Coffin.

     We are all here to focus on what is becoming a critical national priority-prisoner reentry. I'm deeply impressed by the sense of a shared mission here and your willingness to come together across disciplines to address these important issues.

     It wasn't so long ago that reentry was seen as a sideline issue, one that only a few people - parole officers, prison ministries, inmates and their families - cared about (although you here today should certainly be proud that Vermont was thinking about these issues before many other states, and has always been ahead of this particular curve). So many other states are coming along too, in large part due to two factors.

     First, the astonishing growth of our nation's incarcerated population - and the corresponding rise in the number of released inmates - has created a demand for effective reentry programming.

     Over the last 30 years, our nation's prison population has quadrupled. Today, some 2.3 million people - or more than one in every 100 American adults - are behind bars. Ninety-five percent of them will be released at some point. That amounts to more than 700,000 people exiting state and federal prisons every year. Another nine million are released from local jails.

     The second important factor that changes our collective attitude toward reentry is that we now have a better understanding of the problems facing released prisoners - and of the implications of reentry for public safety, community health, and state and municipal budgets.

     We know, for example, that those who come out of our prisons and jails carry a disproportionate share of communicable diseases and mental illnesses.

     We know that incarceration reduces an offender's future employment prospects and earning potential - an enormous problem when you consider that holding a job is one of the best predictors of a future free of crime.

     And we know that time spent behind bars adversely affects so many other aspects of a former prisoner's life - his educational opportunities, his ability to find stable housing, the fulfillment of his responsibilities as a parent. All of these things influence an inmate's chances of becoming a productive, law-abiding citizen.

     But, you may ask, aren't these all concerns for our prison officials and parole officers? Why do the rest of us need to be involved?

     We need to be involved because we know that recidivism rates among these populations are unacceptably high - nationally, two-thirds of state prisoners are rearrested within three years of release, about half of whom are reincarcerated. So reentry is not just a corrections problem: it's an urgent public safety concern. And each year we spend more than $68 billion on federal, state and local corrections. We simply can't afford to incarcerate our way out of this problem.

     As you may know, Attorney General Holder has convened an Interagency Reentry Council to coordinate and improve federal efforts on reentry.

     This Council is remarkable on several levels. First, it enjoys the active participation of seven Cabinet members, as well as of many other leaders across the federal government. The Reentry Council is also notable for the scope of its mission, which is centered on three goals: ensuring community safety; helping those returning from prison and jail to become productive citizens; and saving taxpayer dollars by lowering the direct and collateral costs of incarceration.

     There's a marvelous photo from the Council's first meeting last January up on the screen that conveys the excitement and engagement of all the participants. Clockwise around the table you can recognize Attorney General Holder; Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan; Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki; Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske; Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; and Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson.

     The Council has received substantial commitments to action from various departments. The Attorney General, for example, wrote a letter to all state attorneys general asking them to eliminate unnecessary collateral consequences that prevent returning offenders from becoming productive members of their communities. The impetus for this was a new study-called for by Senator Leahy-funded by our National Institute of Justice and undertaken by the American Bar Association.

     The ABA found that some 38,000 laws imposing collateral consequences are on the books, and more than 80 percent of them involve employment barriers. Many of these laws may be out-of-date and out-of-touch. We need to ensure that every conviction does not carry, what is in effect, a life sentence.

     Along these lines the Council has published a series of "Reentry MythBusters" clarifying federal policy on a number of issues, including public housing, employment, and access to benefits for the returning prisoner population.

     We will continue to work at the federal level to reduce barriers and improve outcomes in this arena, and we are relying on your work as well. One of the key goals of the Reentry Council is to identify evidence-based practices that advance the Council's mission. The National Reentry Resource Center is doing a tremendous job pulling together all we have learned. Their website - where you can find those "Mythbusters" -- is a one-stop shop for all things reentry.

     Another terrific document is a new toolkit containing facts and basic information on all aspects of reentry tailored for U.S. Attorneys' Offices.

     We're working to improve reentry outcomes in many other ways as well. Last year, under the Second Chance Act, the Justice Department awarded $100 million for both adult and juvenile reentry efforts. The awards covered employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing relief, family reunification, and other challenges faced by returning prisoners.

     We now have more than 250 active Second Chance Act grantees. Two of them are organizations represented by people here today:

     The Vermont Department of Corrections is working with town Community Justice Centers to rehabilitate individuals at high risk for reoffending-its Commissioner Andrew Pallito will be moderating this morning's first panel.

     We'll also hear from Bob Wofford, who oversees the Mentoring for a New Day (MEND) project, which serves repeat offenders with mental health and substance abuse disorders.

     Thank you again for inviting me today to talk about federal efforts on reentry. I am so very pleased to be here, and to learn more about the work you are doing to transform the way people across our nation - and world - think about, and act on, reentry policies.

      I deeply appreciate your commitment to successfully bringing citizens who have paid their debt to society back into their communities.

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