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Remarks of Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brent J. Cohen at the Jails and Justice Support Center Launch, Arlington, VA
Thank you, and good morning. It’s a privilege to join Associate Attorney General Gupta and my colleagues from the Office of Justice Programs and the National Institute of Corrections – and, of course, all our friends and partners who are helping to lead this initiative. And let me echo the Associate Attorney General’s appreciation to Sheriff Quiroz and the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office for serving as our hosts.
On behalf of the Office of Justice Programs, of which the Bureau of Justice Assistance is a central part, I am excited to be on hand today as we announce the launch of the Jails and Justice Support Center.
Earlier in my career, I saw first-hand the challenges we’ve all heard about this morning – the churn in jail populations through admissions and releases, the tremendous physical and behavioral health burdens that jails have been forced to assume and the difficulties in maintaining safety and security.
When I worked at the New York City Department of Correction, I often walked the halls of the jails on Rikers Island as well as the borough facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I visited housing units and spoke with the uniformed staff as well as the men and women who were detained there, and I saw first-hand the challenges of working with a complex population with many different needs.
I know – like everyone else here – that jails see people in their worst moments, and conflicts and disputes between individuals that originate outside on the street can follow them into the jail. This creates a potentially volatile and unsafe atmosphere for those in custody, not to mention for staff and visitors.
And regardless of whether there’s an immediate safety risk, many of those who come through your facilities are in dire need of treatment and care. Our own Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 44 percent of people in local jails have a history of mental illness. More than 1 in 4 people in jail meet the threshold for serious psychological distress. That’s almost twice the rate for those in prison.
It’s a tired cliché at this point, but jails have become de facto mental health clinics. In many cases, they are often the largest healthcare provider – and homeless shelter – in a community.
Unlike prisons, the brevity and unpredictability of most people’s stay in jail can present major hurdles to implementing effective reentry plans.
And it’s not just the population that poses challenges; in many places, it’s the physical plant, too. I have seen how a jail facility can deteriorate over time, given the wear and tear, and how that deterioration can lead to security risks, from escape to improvised weapons. I had the privilege of getting to know the hardworking staff – from correction officers to captains to wardens – who did their very best to keep New York City’s jails as safe and as humane as they could.
Despite a recognition of the significant challenges that are ever present in our nation’s jails, and despite my deep appreciation for the staff who go above and beyond to maintain safety and order, the truth is that, as a nation, we often fall short in our commitment to keep safe those who enter the jail doors.
Unacceptable conditions inside jail facilities can take many forms, from withholding basic necessities like pillows and blankets, underwear and soap, to providing inedible food or not disbursing needed medication, to unnecessary uses of force or high levels of violence among and between people who are detained.
Jail is an unnatural environment, one wrought with challenges around every corner, and we ask your departments and your staff to step forward everyday to make these unnatural environments livable for those who are detained inside. It is a tough job that no doubt takes a toll on you and your staff, but it is incredibly important, and at OJP we are committed to working with you so that you have the tools and information that you need to ensure the health, safety and well-being of residents, staff and visitors.
For example, we’re working to expand access to evidence-based interventions inside places of confinement. This includes medication-assisted treatment and peer-to-peer recovery support for people with substance use disorders. We know that people who’ve been incarcerated are at greater risk of overdose in their first hours and days after release. So we’re supporting efforts that incentivize screening and assessment early on in the process, along with improved access to treatment behind the walls.
Our Bureau of Justice Assistance recently started an initiative called Building Bridges, which is a partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration focused on expanding access to treatment options in jails. And, earlier this year, we joined with our partners at NIC to develop and issue Guidelines for Managing Substance Withdrawal in Jails. This resource is an invaluable tool for jail administrators, health care professionals and others to work together to support and protect the people in their care. It also helped lay the groundwork for the Jails and Justice Support Center that we’re spotlighting today.
This is precisely what the Jails and Justice Support Center is all about: providing the best practices, policies and knowledge from across the country to those of you who operate our nation’s jails and supporting you in your work to keep your facilities, and your communities, safe. The center is designed to be a one-stop shop to help jail administrators and other stakeholders tackle those difficult challenges we’ve been talking about today. It represents a pledge from the Department of Justice – and from our many partners – to support you as you shoulder the heavy responsibilities that you carry every day.
As the Associate Attorney General said, we believe it will be a useful, and timely, resource as you continue to tackle the great challenges you face.
There are other ways, too, that OJP is supporting jail administrators across the country. I remember hearing often from my colleagues in New York, “we don’t choose who comes to jail.” It’s the truth. Far too many people who don’t need to be in jail end up in jail. In addition to supporting you through the Jails and Justice Support Center, we are also working with jurisdictions to help divert individuals who don’t need to be in jail from ever coming through your front door.
At OJP, we’re proud to support a number of innovative diversion and deflection alternatives, including programs in a growing number of communities where justice system and behavioral health professionals are teaming up to address the complex issues around mental health, substance use and other challenges. This approach is both a more sustainable long-term solution to these deep-rooted problems and a long-overdue recognition that our jails and our justice system have been asked to do too much. Diversion and deflection is a way of opening a relief valve and giving our jail professionals the support they need.
All of us at OJP are grateful for the work that you do in carrying out the daunting task of keeping our communities safe while protecting those in your charge. We want you to know that we are here to support you every step of the way.