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

Tuscon/Phoenix Criminal Law Seminar

November 16-17, 2011
Tuscon and Phoenix, AZ

     Thank you, Judge Pyle for that lovely introduction, and for organizing this ambitious and impressive gathering. I'm very pleased to be here among this distinguished group of members of the federal bar association and other professionals in the criminal justice system to discuss the critical issue of reentry and the Justice Department's commitment to it.

     Judge Aiken, what a wonderful video presentation that was! As you may know, your Oregon Reentry Court is prominently featured in our new toolkit for US Attorneys -as is Missouri's Doug Burris's work helping the southern district of Alabama set up an employment job fair for returning offenders. And, of course, I want to commend the work of your new Acting U.S. Attorney, Ann Scheel, who in a very short time has stepped up to what must be the most challenging roster of cases in the US!

     It wasn't so long ago that prisoner reentry was seen as a sideline issue, one that only a few people - probation officers, prison ministries, inmates and their families - cared about. I know this from personal experience -- I started my career as a local prosecutor and spent 15 years in the US Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia -- and at first I felt that criminals ought to do their time, and it wasn't my problem what happened to them when they got out.

     But what happened to them when they got out was that all too often, they would go right back in. Two-thirds of state prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release, and about half of all those released return to prison. The record for federal offenders is better, but still about 40 percent are rearrested.

     This "business as usual" approach hasn't been nearly as effective as it should be, and it hasn't made the victims of crime feel any safer either. I know from my deep experience in victim services that individual victims are as invested as anyone in seeing less future victimization as society's proper goal for its offenders.

     It is time to change our ways of thinking about prisoner reentry, to bring reentry concerns from the sidelines to the 50-yard line. Two principal realities in the U.S. today are driving this urgency.

     First, the astonishing growth of our nation's incarcerated population - and the corresponding rise in the number of released inmates - has created a tremendous 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 these people 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 annually.

     The second important factor changing 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 and community health.

      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 a person'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 greatly influence a former offender's chances of becoming a productive, law-abiding citizen - and thus, of remaining free of crime.

     So reentry is not just a corrections problem - it's an urgent public safety concern. And given the new sentencing guideline amendments promulgated on November 1 as a result of the Fair Sentencing Act, which had a retroactive effect, providing appropriate reentry services to those defendants who are released sooner than previously expected will help those with reduced sentences make a successful transition.

     Concern for public safety is the reason the Attorney General made reentry one of the three prongs of his Anti-Violence Strategy, along with prevention and enforcement. It's also why the Department of Justice is leading an Administration-wide effort to tackle the pressing issues of prisoner reintegration.

     As you know, Attorney General Holder has convened an Interagency Reentry Council to coordinate federal efforts related to reentry. This is an active working group whose actions and decisions are resonating beyond the government conference room. Seven Cabinet officials - and many other agency heads across government - are actively participating in this Council.

     At the inaugural meeting of the Council last January, the Cabinet Secretaries didn't just stick to their scripted "talking points" - they were engaged, and very enthusiastic about what their Departments could accomplish in working together. At that first meeting, the Council adopted a mission statement centered on three goals:

  • making communities safer by reducing recidivism and victimization;
  • helping those returning from prison to become productive citizens; and
  • saving taxpayer dollars by lowering the direct and collateral costs of incarceration.

     It also secured no fewer than eleven substantial commitments to action from various departments. For example, the Attorney General pledged to ask state attorneys general to eliminate unnecessary collateral consequences that impede returning offenders from becoming productive community members.

     In April, Attorney General Holder made good on his pledge, and sent a letter to every state attorney general asking them to review their statutes with an eye toward lowering the barriers for successful reentry.

     Along these lines, the Reentry Council has also been working to clarify federal laws and policies that affect former prisoners and point people to resources that can be helpful. They've published a series of "Reentry MythBusters" on issues ranging from public housing, employment barriers and access to federal benefits. We now have 22 of these "MythBusters" that we hope will bring clarity and transparency to the vast web of federal policies. We have some printed sets available today, and you can also easily access them online.

     Another promising collaboration across federal agencies is the Federal Criminal Justice System Reentry Roundtable, first convened in April. This is a high-level working group of leaders from the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, the Criminal Law Committee, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the Federal Judicial Center, and agencies throughout the Department of Justice. Since that initial meeting, staff from each of these components have been exchanging concrete ideas for enhanced coordination and cooperation, and we'll be having additional discussions in the weeks and months ahead. I'm optimistic that these efforts will bear fruit and I look forward to what I'm sure will be positive gains for public safety, overall cost-effectiveness, and individual reentry success.

     In addition to our leadership role with the Reentry Council and Roundtable, the Justice Department is engaged in a wide variety of efforts focused on enhancing the prospects for successful offender reentry at the federal, state, and local levels.

     For example, in FY 2010, under the Second Chance Act, my agency - OJP - awarded $100 million dollars to support 178 adult and juvenile reentry efforts - this is on top of the 70 funded in 2009 - covering employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing relief, family reunification, and other challenges faced by returning prisoners. DOJ received more than 1,000 applications for Second Chance funding in FY 2011, of which 118 local and state governments and nonprofit organizations received grants totaling $83 million.

     The administration has requested $100 million for the Second Chance Act in the FY 2012 budget. Congress has proposed less, but we are counting on the legislative process to maintain funding for this essential program---for this issue has real bi-partisan support - not just in Washington (the Second Chance Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush), but in state capitals across the country.

     Two of the FY 2011 grants went to Arizona organizations, by the way: the Pima County Department of Institutional Health received nearly $600,000, and the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections received a $45,000 planning grant. Ongoing projects in Arizona previously funded under the SCA include the District of Arizona, Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee Reentry Initiative, a unique and extraordinary statewide collaboration of all the key reentry stakeholders in Arizona.

     (In addition, a U.S. Attorney Office-led group has been provided some technical assistance by the National Institute of Corrections to begin implementing their "Evidence Based Decision Making Framework" here in Arizona in multiple jurisdictions, including federally.)

     Since Second Chance was enacted, reentry programs have blossomed at the state, local and federal levels. It's encouraging to see, for example, that reentry courts have sprung up in more than half the federal districts over the last few years. And the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is leading efforts to use evidence-based practices in their everyday interactions with probationers around the country. Anecdotal and statistical evidence is proving the worth of these early efforts:

  • The Court Assisted Recovery Effort (CARE) program in Massachusetts, for example, found that between 2006, when the program began, and 2009, 43 percent of the people who participated in the CARE reentry court were rearrested, as opposed to 63 percent of those in the control group. These are significant savings, in terms of both cost and public safety.
  • The Supervision to Aid Reentry (STAR) program in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, targeting those with a high risk of recidivism, tracked the first 60 participants in the program for 18 months and compared them to 60 offenders on regular supervised release. The study found that only 10 percent of STAR program graduates were rearrested during the study period, compared to 31 percent of the control group.
  • Another creative example is in the Western District of Virginia, where the United States Attorney's Office participates in a reentry court geared solely toward veterans. The program entails both post-conviction and "front end" diversion options.

     These three examples highlight the very important contributions to reentry made by our U.S. Attorney Offices, which have an ability, unlike any other entity among the nation's law enforcement and criminal justice agencies, to draw together federal, state, and local partners. This convening power is, in my view, one of the best assets we have at the federal level, and our work in the reentry arena is an unparalleled opportunity to exercise that power.

     Until recently, as I noted earlier, U.S. Attorneys (and the rest of us) approached reentry with caution, if not downright skepticism. In January of this year, however, the Department issued a memorandum encouraging U.S. Attorneys to engage in reentry efforts and to participate in reentry courts, and other reentry efforts.

      To help them get involved, we've sent all U.S. Attorneys' Offices the new toolkit on reentry, specially tailored for them, that I mentioned earlier. This is a terrific document. It includes facts and basic information on all aspects of reentry. It discusses Department policy. It provides guidance on setting up reentry courts. And it describes a number of federal initiatives that show promise.

     I think it will be a great resource, and one that will be useful, not just to our prosecutors, but to practitioners across the federal criminal justice system.

     The Department is even making sure that USAO time spent on reentry is being properly credited within our personnel management databases. We expect that, as they're measured and assessed, reentry programs will prove their worth in reduced recidivism and enhanced public safety, in the same way that inmate employment and counseling have been shown to do.

     For we have sound evidence that people who work in prison industries, or participate in residential drug abuse treatment, education classes, or vocational training, all have significantly lower rates of recidivism than those who do not participate. And these programs save taxpayers money. For every dollar spent on correctional programs, we can save more than six dollars in avoided costs of crime.

     This Justice Department is firmly committed to evidence-based practices such as these. As you may know, a year ago this month Attorney General Eric Holder named 18 experts -- scholars and practitioners in criminology, statistics, sociology, and the criminal and juvenile justice fields -- to a newly created OJP Science Advisory Board, chaired by Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University, a previous winner of the Stockholm Prize in Criminology.

      The board's mission is to help keep the focus on evidence-based approaches to prevent and reduce crime, and to ensure that OJP's research is scientifically rigorous and that it is translated effectively for policymakers and practitioners.

     Further proof of the Department's commitment to scientific inquiry and practice is the Evidence Integration Initiative (E2I) launched by Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson in 2009. The Initiative's three goals are improving the quantity and quality of evidence OJP generates; integrating evidence into program, practice and policy decisions within OJP and the field; and improving the translation of evidence into practice.

     As part of this initiative, in July the Department launched a new website, CrimeSolutions.gov, to inform practitioners and policymakers about what works in criminal justice, juvenile justice, and crime victim services. The site includes information on more than 150 justice-related programs and assigns "evidence ratings" -- effective, promising, or no effects - to indicate whether there is evidence from research that a program achieves its goals.

      I'm excited about the ways that our commitment to science and evidence-based practices will lead to real improvements in the way we understand, approach and treat the problem of prisoner reentry. We're finding new and creative ways to meet critical public safety needs. And we're beginning to realize our full potential as guardians of community safety. Your participation here is a signal that we all have a stake in the reentry process.

     Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak with you today. I will be happy to answer any questions and to continue the dialogue.

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