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Remarks of Assistant Attorney General Amy L. Solomon at the National Summit to Advance States' Criminal Justice Priorities, Atlanta, GA
Thank you. I could not be more excited to be part of this Justice Reinvestment summit. I’m glad to see so many long-time partners and state leaders from just about every corner of this country. You are here to learn, to network and to work – with your state teams – to address key challenges, dig into the data and identify new strategies to improve public safety and put people who come into contact with the justice system on the path to success.
As evidenced by the opening session, JRI is a very special initiative, and one that is steeped in partnership – between the non-profit sector, the philanthropic community and government at all levels. So much of this work has been made possible by our friends at Pew Charitable Trusts and Arnold Ventures, who’ve provided so much of the foundational support – intellectual and financial -- for this effort. Our partners at the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Crime and Justice Institute – and more recently CNA – have worked closely, smartly and tirelessly with state leaders and policymakers for many years now – and in putting together this important summit. And, of course, Karhlton and the outstanding team in our Bureau of Justice Assistance have been driving JRI from the federal level. And here I want to give a well-deserved shout-out to Ruby Qazilbash, Michelle Garcia, Heather Tubman-Carbone, Karen Friedman, Jeff Locke and Ben Shelor for their leadership in BJA, with JRI, and for the incredible work they’ve done to pull this event together.
For more than 15 years, these partners have been working together to move the needle, to drive smarter and more sustainable criminal justice policies – policies that are more fair, more just more efficient and more impactful. In my view, this initiative is one of the best examples of how federal dollars can be leveraged to address public safety.
To put this in perspective, at the Office of Justice Programs, we invest four to five billion dollars annually in state, local, community and tribal public safety efforts. Those are big numbers – I recognize that. But each year, state and local governments spend over $250 billion on their justice systems. This includes over $80 billion on corrections, $123 billion on policing and another $49 billion on the courts and the legal system. Another $280 billion goes toward treating mental health disorders, and the economic impact of substance misuse is estimated about more than $440 billion.
That’s a tremendous fiscal burden being felt by you at the state and local levels – and of course the human costs are beyond measure. But the beauty of JRI is that we’re using our limited federal dollars to catalyze reinvestment at the state and local levels. The federal investments, through our very talented technical assistance partners, support you to assess your unique systems, identify your most pressing safety and justice challenges, maximize the use of your own precious resources, to help build and support communities that are more safe and more just. That’s the opportunity that this initiative provides.
Make no mistake: The ideas and leadership behind JRI come from you – from state, local and tribal leaders. And so it’s no wonder that JRI has enjoyed such success and bi-partisan support for more than 15 years.
The results speak for themselves. Recidivism rates have dropped in many jurisdictions that have followed the JRI playbook. Correctional populations, and correctional costs, have fallen in many states as well. And taxpayers are benefitting from a sounder approach to public safety, to the tune of some $3.2 billion dollars that has been saved or averted. These resources can then be reinvested in strategies to reduce recidivism, support survivors of crime and strengthen communities. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative has been a game-changer, and – I believe and I hope – represents the future of criminal justice policymaking.
Forty-four states have used JRI analysis in their planning and decision-making, and they’ve adopted a wide range of policies that include sentencing and corrections reforms, expanding behavioral health interventions at the front end of the system, victims services and addressing racial disparities that are so pervasive in the justice system. JRI has been a proving ground for evidence-based criminal justice strategies and a laboratory for innovation.
As you heard from Karhlton, here in Georgia we’ve seen the tremendous potential of JRI, starting with its success in reducing its prison population while averting more than a quarter-billion dollars in costs. Progress has continued through the creation of the state’s Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission in 2019. I’d like to recognize Chief Justice Michael Boggs, who is a member of this commission and chairs the subcommittee on mental health, courts and corrections. Chief Justice Boggs will be joining us shortly, and I just wanted to thank him for his long-term leadership here in Georgia and at a national level.
As a result of this commission, Georgia has expanded the network of peer support specialists in diversion programs. They’ve established jail-based and crisis programs across the state. And they’ve taken on several long-standing challenges, including addressing behavioral health workforce shortages and improving policy and practice around the restoration of defendants’ competency to stand trial.
On the community supervision front, Georgia had the highest probation rate in the country. But with JRI support and under the leadership of Commissioner Michael Nail, who is here with us today, Georgia’s Department of Community Supervision has undertaken several key efforts that focus their resources on the highest risk people and at the time period when they are at the greatest risk of recidivism. Relatedly, they have reduced long probation terms for lower risk individuals, and addressed the thorny issue of legal financial obligation for those on felony probation. The real-world benefits to those on community supervision are significant. And for probation and parole officers, they now have smaller caseloads and can prioritize their time on those who pose the greatest risk.
Georgia remains a leader in this space, and it is fitting that we are holding our summit in the state capital – so thank you to our leaders and hosts from Georgia. One more shout out here too, to longtime leader and colleague Jay Neal, Executive Director for the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
The success that Georgia has achieved, and the work that has been done through JRI across the country, has been driven by data, is grounded in pragmatic policies and, notably, represents an across-the-aisle commitment to public safety and equal justice. Red, blue and purple states have engaged in this work and have reaped the benefits. Political ideology takes a back seat to results, and to shared goals and values that focus on safety, justice, equity and opportunity.
I have seen, and have been proud to be a part of, the growth and development of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative since it was launched as a public-private enterprise in 2007. It is heartening to see how it has taken hold and evolved, and how decision-makers have rallied behind the banner of evidence.
We know, at the Office of Justice Programs, that JRI is working because it begins at home – with the policymakers and practitioners who are closest to the issues. We also know that success can be achieved and sustained only by coming together across branches of government to lean on data, to explore various recommendations and ultimately to gain consensus on strategy. This careful, collaborative and deeply thoughtful approach is demanded by the difficult challenges states are facing today.
On a personal front, I've spent much of my career working on corrections reform and reentry. As you well know, corrections is a huge driver of state resources, and I think it’s an understatement to say that the corrections field is currently at a crossroads, facing extraordinary challenges. America still outpaces the rest of the world when it comes to high incarceration rates, and the burden of incarceration continues to take a heavy toll – especially in the wake of COVID – on the health and welfare of those who are incarcerated and on those who work in jails and prisons. People continue to come into correctional facilities with high rates of health and mental health disorders, and too many leave those facilities without treatment.
Meanwhile, the corrections workforce is facing a recruitment and retention crisis, and correctional staff are suffering alarming rates of PTSD and suicide. In fact, the life expectancy of corrections officers is stunningly low, reportedly even lower than it is for law enforcement officers.
JRI is helping tackle these challenges in several states, and I want to lift up the example of Mississippi. About 10 years ago, our friends at Pew and the Crime and Justice Institute worked with officials in the state to study its corrections population. They found that it had grown more than 300 percent over the previous three decades, making it the state with the second-highest imprisonment rate in the country at the time.
Mississippi leaders established a bipartisan, interbranch task force that recommended changes that allowed greater use of community supervision in lieu of prison and reduced the use of incarceration for low-level drug offenses, among other reforms. These recommendations eventually passed and were signed into law, and the result has been an almost 10 percent decrease in the state’s prison population over the last decade. And over the same time period, the state achieved significant declines in both violent and property crime rates.
Another promising example is Minnesota, which faced a very different challenge. The state has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, but one of the highest rates of people on probation. At the same time, community supervision across the state was under-resourced, and there were glaring inequities. The rate of Black adults on felony probation in 2019 was nearly five times higher than white adults, and for Native Americans the rate was more than nine times higher. Probation violations and supervised release returns accounted for nearly two-thirds of prison admissions.
The CSG Justice Center worked with a bipartisan group of state officials to analyze case-level sentencing, prison and probation data, looking at both trends and outcomes. At the end of a very robust engagement process, legislators advanced a sweeping public safety bill that increased funding for community supervision and took a big step toward reducing inequities. It also brings consistency to supervision standards, risk assessment and training, and builds in a focus on evidence-based, culturally appropriate and trauma-informed approaches. Governor Walz signed the bill into law earlier this year. I’m excited to see where these reforms will lead.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The value of the JRI process is that it meets states where they are, by helping them find ways to take on the challenges that they themselves have identified. And that’s exactly what has happened over the course of this initiative. State officials, legislators and policymakers have worked with analysts and experts to identify and quantify their biggest problems, and they are using that data as leverage to make new investments.
All told, some $3.2 billion has been saved or averted, more than $650 million has been reinvested in states around the country and at least 21 correctional facilities have been safely closed. These are impressive and measurable results that demonstrate what can be achieved by asking the hard questions, following the data, working together in good faith and with open minds, and grounding criminal justice policy in evidence.
These victories are shared victories, achieved by a collective commitment to creating a smarter, more efficient and more humane system of justice. Results are not quick or easy, but we are talking here about game-changing, systems-changing, culture-changing results that hold the potential to change lives and transform communities.
Over the next two days, you’ll hear from your colleagues and peers across the country, from national experts who have been doing this work for years, and from the organizations who have helped to lead the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. To set the stage, we’ll have a discussion about trends in crime and recidivism, in behavioral health and in corrections populations, and we’ll hear how data is being used to identify disparities and inequities in the criminal justice systems.
State leaders will share what’s working in crime reduction – and we are honored to be hearing from Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt later this morning. We’ll also hear about the social science research behind state sentencing policies and from local partners, who will talk about how shifts in state policy affect communities and local jail populations.
Tomorrow, we’ll hear from people with lived experience sharing their own paths to success after incarceration. You’ll also be able to take part in sessions on reentry, victim services and partnerships that address behavioral health.
We have nearly 40 sessions focused on four key themes – prioritizing prison space and managing lengths of stay, expanding front-end interventions and behavioral health strategies, improving community supervision and aligning reentry supports for people returning to their communities.
And importantly, you will have time today and tomorrow to engage with your state teams about challenges and solutions. You will review tailored state data snapshots to get a sense of where your system is and what your options are to address key challenges. This is JRI in action. And a key benefit of coming together in this way is to give you space – away from the day to day demands and pressures you face at home – to really think and talk together and chart the next chapter for your state.
I am honored to join you at this convening, I am encouraged by the progress that we are making together and I commend you all for the work you are doing – and will do – to safeguard your communities and build a justice system that helps people realize their full potential.
Thank you for all that you do, and have a great conference.