~ Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Thank you, Karol [Mason], for that kind introduction and for your outstanding leadership as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs. I also want to thank Valerie Jarrett for her tireless work on so many important issues relating to criminal justice reform. It’s a pleasure to be here today and it’s a privilege to join such a distinguished group of inspiring leaders, passionate advocates and eminent experts for this important convening about how we can continue working together to reduce recidivism, improve reentry outcomes and help every American exiting prison and jail lead a meaningful and productive life.
This conversation is taking place at a particularly significant time. Over the last few years, we have gained a deeper understanding of how a variety of factors can undermine basic equality and distort the arc of justice. As a result, Americans from a range of backgrounds and beliefs have come to agree that our criminal justice system can and must be made more efficient, more effective and more fair. And thanks in no small part to the efforts of people like you, we have arrived at a critical moment of consensus around the urgency of ensuring that each component of our justice system – from bail to fines and fees; from policing to indigent defense; and from sentencing guidelines to incarceration – is more closely aligned with our fundamental belief in opportunity and justice for all.
A vital part of that task is examining what happens to our fellow Americans when they exit the justice system. With our criminal justice system impacting one in four Americans in some way, the sheer human capital represented by that number is too important to our future to be written off and thrown away. Their families cannot afford to lose their influence. Their communities cannot afford to lose their contributions. And we cannot afford to lose their potential. But what happens when our fellow Americans finish paying their debt to society and return home, pockets empty? Do they have opportunities to further their education? Can they find jobs that allow them to grow and succeed? Can they access mentoring programs and counseling services? Do they have what they need to stay on the right path? Do they have, in fact, a second chance? These are crucial questions with profound implications, not only for the individuals returning to society, but for every American in every community. If we let the cycle of incarceration and recidivism continue, too many Americans will be denied the chance to fulfill their potential and contribute their skills and talents to their communities. If we allow those who have done their time to be further punished upon release by collateral consequences brought on by prejudice and neglect, too many of our neighborhoods will continue to struggle under the burden of division and mistrust. And if we don’t prepare incarcerated individuals to re-enter society, public safety is harmed; taxpayer dollars are wasted; and we as a country will fall short of our promise.
That’s why the work you do is so important. Whether you conduct job training for individuals looking for their next step, or counsel those grappling with addiction or mental illness, you make it clear to reentering Americans that they are not alone. You walk alongside them as they navigate the difficult path forward. And you give them the tools and help them hone the skills they need to make the most of their second chance. Your work is having a broader impact, too – because of your successes, a growing number of states and municipalities throughout the U.S. are implementing evidence-based programs to help reduce recidivism; improve the prospects of the formerly incarcerated; and create stronger, safer, and more prosperous communities for all.
The Department of Justice is committed to doing our part to advance that mission. Since Congress passed the Second Chance Act in 2007, our Office of Justice Programs has made nearly 750 Second Chance Act grants totaling more than $400 million – including $53 million in FY 2015 to 45 jurisdictions. With the help of these funds, our grantees have offered critical assistance to populations at moderate and high risk of recidivism. They have introduced comprehensive reentry programs for justice-involved youth; helped people with diagnosed mental illnesses find stable housing and avoid rearrest; offered college credit to incarcerated individuals; and established a variety of metrics for tracking progress so that we know what works. These are just a few examples of the initiatives that you and your partners have launched in 49 states with SCA funding and we at the Justice Department could not be more proud to support your work.
In addition to our partnerships with you, we are working with a number of cabinet-level agencies through the Federal Interagency Reentry Council. This unique body, which I am proud to chair, is designed to reduce federal barriers to reentry and promote innovative approaches to reintegration. For instance, under the council’s auspices, we’ve launched a pilot program with the Department of Education that makes some inmates eligible for federal Pell grants, opening doors through postsecondary education or training. We’ve joined the Department of Housing and Urban Development to explore ways to address homelessness among the justice-involved publication. And in the coming weeks, the Departments of Justice and Labor will establish a National Clean Slate Clearinghouse to provide local jurisdictions technical assistance with record-cleaning and expungement – an appropriate follow-up to President Obama’s recent announcement that federal employers would “ban the box” and no longer ask applicants about their criminal histories at the initial hiring stage.
The scope and pace of these efforts is a reminder of the real and remarkable progress that the United States has made in helping incarcerated citizens succeed after prison. But though we have made an encouraging start, as you know, our work is far from finished. At this critical juncture – this moment of rare bipartisan agreement – it is more important than ever that we harness this momentum and continue to push forward, so that every American returning from prison can find dignified work and adequate shelter; so that they can receive fair treatment and full opportunity; so that they return to a society that values them as fellow citizens; so that they can, in fact, truly return home.
I have no illusions that the road ahead will be easy. But with the help of extraordinary partners like all of you here today, I am not only hopeful, but confident, about where our nation is headed. After all, you were calling for change long before criminal justice reform led the news broadcasts and earned headlines. Now that change is within sight, I know that your conviction has only deepened, your resolve has only strengthened, and that our fight for progress will continue to bear fruit. Thank you once again for all that you’ve done. Thank you for your faith in our mission and our work. I look forward to all that we will achieve together in the days and months to come.