THE HONORABLE DEBORAH J. DANIELS
ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL
OFFICE OF JUSTICE PROGRAMS
NATIONAL CONFERENCE ON OFFENDER REENTRY
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2004
Thank you, Cheri. Good morning, and welcome to this National Conference on Offender Reentry. I'm pleased to join you here in Cleveland to talk about strategies for keeping our neighborhoods safe by offering returning offenders a meaningful second chance.
This conference presents an unprecedented opportunity for all those concerned about the subject of returning offenders to join together, share ideas and success stories, and discuss the challenges ahead. It is critical that we use this opportunity to develop the collaboration and strategic thought process necessary if we are effectively to address the return of serious, high-risk offenders to communities across our nation.
The subject of returning offenders is something that all Americans should consider seriously. More than 600,000 inmates are released from prison every year, and a quarter of them are violent felons. Two-thirds are rearrested within three years of their release, often for committing violent crimes. And with more than 2 million people behind bars in our country, most of whom will be released someday, the tide of returning offenders cannot be expected to ebb at any time in the immediate future.
As you will here from experts during this conference, released offenders are responsible for a large share of violent crime, and that proves that traditional approaches to corrections and release have done little to prepare criminals for life outside of prison. Simply locking them up and letting the clock tick toward the end of their sentences ignores the reality that those criminals will sooner or later re-join society. Simply handing a released prisoner $50 and a bus ticket ignores the reality that he is ill-equipped to live a crime-free life on the outside. Whether the role in society of returning offenders will be a positive or a negative one depends largely on what happens to them while they are in prison, on their way out, and after they re-enter our communities.
Failure to look beyond punishment also ignores the higher, redemptive potential of our criminal justice and social services systems. Once an offender has served out his sentence, our system of justice considers that he has paid his debt. He has answered for his wrong. We cannot, in the name of fairness and justice, continue to call him to account by dismissing or disdaining him.
What we can do-and what we must do-is offer him a chance to turn his life around and make something good of himself. What higher purpose could there be? And in so doing, we will have helped to create a safer, healthier community.
So we are faced with a tough question, one that we must answer now-how do we re-integrate ex-offenders into our communities in a way that ensures that those communities remain safe? Given the high rates of recidivism and the lengthy criminal histories of many offenders, which are themselves predictors of recidivism, solutions are not easy to come by. But there are solutions, and many of you can offer proof that offenders can find their way back to productive, crime-free lives.
We are here today, and for the next three days, to share those successes. We also are here to talk about the challenges we've met and continue to meet. We're here to put our heads together and to generate new ideas and new strategies. And we're here to build and strengthen partnerships, partnerships that include all stakeholders and capitalize on all available resources.
Our goal at this conference is to find what works, to determine what approaches give ex-offenders a chance to succeed and ensure that communities will be protected.
On its face, that sounds like a two-pronged objective, but it is really a single vision seen from two perspectives. By giving offenders a second chance, we are not only embarking on a mission to permit the healing of fractured souls and help wrong-doers find meaning and purpose in their lives. That is a vital part of our work, to be sure. But by providing these second chances, we also are making our communities stronger, more vital, and - above all -- safer.
And that is really what we should be about - creating strong, healthy communities in which people can safely live, work and raise their families.
When you help an offender find a job; when you assist him in finding a place he can call home; when you teach him the skills he needs to both be useful and feel useful; and when you help him find a meaningful and positive way to contribute to society, you will have made your community a better place -- because you will have made it a safer place. And citizens should be able to expect their government to protect them from danger. The protection of the public is the first responsibility of government.
You will hear that theme echoed throughout this conference. As you listen to the speakers and as you receive ideas and information in the various breakouts, remember this above all else: crime wounds communities. When offenders are re-introduced into society, those wounds are in danger of re-opening. We are here to figure out, not just how to heal tears in the fabric of our society, but how to prevent them from re-opening.
Many of you offer convincing evidence that our challenge can be met. You've demonstrated through your work that offenders, when given the proper tools, are capable of turning away from crime and living positive, productive lives. You can provide any number of real-life examples of success, and those stories offer perhaps the best testimony.
But we must go beyond anecdote. We must be able to show that, in the aggregate, our strategies work. That means creating benchmarks, quantifiable ways of measuring outcomes. And by this I don't mean standard performance metrics to be applied generically across communities and programs. I mean measures that capture the particular results a specific approach is designed to achieve.
This might mean tracking employment. It could mean charting educational achievement. It might mean monitoring drug use. It could mean all these things. But these benchmarks must be established at the start, and they must be applied consistently and over the long term. Clearly defined measures help participants focus their vision, and they help establish the credibility that is necessary to sustain a program.
We must begin in earnest to measure outcomes. We no longer can afford to rely on one or two compelling, but anecdotal, stories as evidence. We can't afford it from an economic standpoint, and, more importantly, we can't afford it from a public safety standpoint. Too much is at stake.
And your work must never be done in a vacuum. One of the surest ways to success is through collaboration. That is another theme you will hear echoed by our speakers. And I would go so far as to add that, absent broad collaboration, your effort is doomed to failure.
When we launched our Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative nearly three years ago, we did so in partnership with seven other federal agencies. Our rationale was, and is, that an offender's transition from incarceration to community is most likely to succeed if the approach taken is comprehensive and inclusive.
That's why we joined together with our friends in corrections, education, mental health, substance abuse treatment, housing, labor, and other fields. We recognized that an offender's ability to stay free of crime outside of prison wasn't guaranteed by the counseling or the education he received while in prison. We knew that he must be guided as he passes through the prison gates and that he must be supported long after he leaves. This meant pooling our resources and expertise at the federal level, across diverse disciplines, to support state and community efforts in a cohesive, coherent manner.
Likewise, those of you at the state and local levels must reach out to stakeholders in your own communities. You must form alliances that are broad and real, and they must transcend the boundaries of discipline. The job of corrections isn't done simply because an offender's time has been served. Mental health workers aren't freed from obligation when they conclude a treatment regimen. Employment services professionals can't claim success once a job is found. Each of the players has an ongoing responsibility, one that exists in concert with the missions and responsibilities of the others. This joint responsibility must take the form of a long-term, collective commitment, both to the welfare of the returning offender and to the welfare of the community.
And in forming these partnerships, we need to look well beyond services based in criminal justice and social service systems. After all, as President Bush has reminded us, "Government can put money in a person's pockets, but it can't put hope in a person's heart, or purpose in a person's life."
Just about every community has organizations that are waiting to be asked for help: organizations that offer mentoring; organizations that offer career guidance; organizations that offer training in family and life skills. And, of course, organizations that offer spiritual sustenance.
If an ex-offender is to become a productive member of society, his life must be transformed. And no one can question the transforming power of faith. We should welcome with open arms our friends in the faith community. They may be the ones best equipped to give direction and meaning to an offender's life. It is their mission to lift up the downtrodden, the disadvantaged, those who have sinned against others. And in many cases, they achieve this mission by giving the ex-offender useful tools for meeting the demands of every day, for resisting the easy path to criminal activity.
Changing an offender's heart, which must necessarily precede a change in his actions, constitutes a giant step toward ensuring not only his chance of living a crime-free life, but also the public's chance of living in a safer community. And I again remind you that public safety constitutes the underpinning, the very purpose, of our offender re-entry efforts.
In addition to hearing from our distinguished speakers, who will lay before you their visions for making reentry programs work, you will have an opportunity to participate in several informative breakout sessions. Those sessions will give you a glimpse into some promising reentry programs and offer ideas that you can take back to your own communities.
They will guide you through the development of performance measures, offering tips to help you determine whether your programs are working. They will give you insight into models of collaboration. They will touch on the many facets of reentry, from education to treatment, from life skills training to career planning to mentoring. And they will address some closely related topics, such as juvenile crime and domestic violence.
You also will hear in our plenaries about a recent report from the Council of State Governments Reentry Policy Council, as well as results from the first-year evaluation of reentry sites.
I hope that when you leave this conference, you will do so armed with new ideas and new skills, but also with a renewed commitment to the work you have chosen to undertake.
I also hope you will leave secure in the knowledge that the Office of Justice Programs is committed to working in partnership with you in your efforts. We are fortunate in the Department of Justice to be led by an Attorney General who not only understands why those efforts are so important, but who acts passionately to support them - and who has traveled here today to express his personal support of you in your mission.
I know the Attorney General joins me in encouraging each of you to share your own ideas, your own suggestions, your own successes, and yes, the challenges you face. We need to hear from you about what works, what doesn't, and what holds promise. We are most helpful when best informed.
Thank you for being here; thank you for the time, attention and energy you will expend at this conference; but most importantly, thank you for your dedication and perseverance on behalf of the health and safety of your community.