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Remarks of Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

State Leaders' Forum on Reentry and Recidivism

Thursday, December 08, 2011
Washington, DC

     Thank you, Mike [Thompson]. I'm so pleased to be here for what I think is a landmark event.

     I want to begin by thanking the distinguished Members of Congress who are speaking to us today - and I'm just delighted to do that - Congressman Wolf, Congressman Fattah, Senator Portman, and Senator Whitehouse.

     Each of you has been such a leader in this area. You've helped to draw the nation's attention to the issues of reentry and recidivism and shape our policy discussions nationally around these topics. We're so appreciative of the great work you do on Capitol Hill and are thrilled you're here today.

     I also want to thank Representative Colloton and Mike Thompson and the terrific staff of the Council of State Government's Justice Center for all they've done to advance this work. We couldn't ask for a more qualified, more committed, more strategic group than the Justice Center to lead our efforts.

     I also have to mention the Pew Center on the States, The Public Welfare Foundation, and the Association of State Correctional Administrators - they've also been outstanding partners, and I want them to know, on behalf of the Department of Justice, how much we value - and depend on - their guidance and support.

     And I'm so glad to have an experienced ally in my colleague, Denise O'Donnell - Director of our Bureau of Justice Assistance - and wonderful advisors in my own office - Amy Solomon and Marlene Beckman, who know these issues inside and out.

     You know, it's really remarkable for me, having spent so many years working in criminal justice, to look back at the last decade or so and to see the incredible progress the corrections field has made. When I served as Assistant Attorney General under Janet Reno in the 90s, my wonderful colleague, Jeremy Travis - then Director of our National Institute of Justice - had just brought the term "reentry" into our lexicon.

     Today, every state has a reentry point person - and they're working closely with corrections directors and governors. And their work is getting broad bipartisan support, as we've seen with the Second Chance Act and our Justice Reinvestment activities. This really is an extraordinary shift!

     But at the end of the day, what we want to see is not just more reentry programming, but better reentry outcomes and, ultimately, of course, lower recidivism.

     In many ways, you're victims of your own success. We're reaching the point now where the mandate for corrections has evolved from keeping criminals off the street to nothing less than improving public safety after release. Our performance is now being measured not in terms of who we bring in, but by how many we're able to keep out. Recidivism reduction is the new metric.

     The definition of recidivism varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but I think we can all agree on a bottom line: we don't want inmates coming out of prison and committing more crimes. Clearly, responsibility for this belongs to many actors in the criminal justice and human services systems. We all have a stake in this. But like it or not, at the federal, state, and local levels, people turn to corrections - and specifically, to corrections directors - for answers.

     In many ways, this parallels the seismic shift in policing philosophy that we saw develop in the 80s. Before the advent of community policing, law enforcement was expected to react to crime and enforce the law, but there was little accountability for reductions in crime. That's all changed. Today, we can't imagine a conversation with a police chief that doesn't involve a discussion of crime rates. I think that's the direction we're headed in corrections.

     The good news is that answers exist. We know a great deal about what works. As the excellent report from last year's Justice Reinvestment Summit spells out, there are four core strategies that can help ensure effectiveness:

  • First, we need to focus on those most likely to offend - and risk instruments need to guide that work.
  • Second, we need to adopt programs and approaches based in sound science and we need to ensure quality.
  • Third, we need effective community supervision.
  • And fourth, we need to target resources to places where most crime is committed.

     States and localities that have adopted these strategies are making good progress, in terms of both reduced costs and less crime. We need to figure out how to expand these practices, and that's why we're here today.

     I'm proud that the Department of Justice and the Obama Administration have been part of this movement to find answers. We've directed considerable energy and resources to supporting local programs and state-level policy changes that make better use of limited public dollars.

     As many of you know, the Attorney General chairs a Federal Interagency Reentry Council that has been working to coordinate federal activities related to prisoner reentry. This is a high-level group of cabinet members and department heads from 18 federal agencies. Amy and Marlene lead a staff-level group that supports the Council, and through their efforts, we've made tremendous headway in untangling, clarifying, and, in some cases, changing policies in a way that supports community reentry efforts.

     Under the Second Chance Act, administered by Denise's office, we're supporting more than 370 adult and juvenile reentry programs across the country, addressing everything from employment and housing to substance abuse treatment and family reunification.

     We're also supporting the National Reentry Resource Center, which serves as a one-stop shop for information and technical assistance. And I'm excited that in the coming weeks, as part of the Resource Center, we'll be opening a "What Works" Library that will serve as an online searchable guide for practitioners on evidence-based reentry practices.

     And we're seeing great things being accomplished through our Justice Reinvestment initiative, which Congressman Wolf and others have championed on Capitol Hill. This is an unprecedented bipartisan effort aimed specifically at reducing recidivism and correctional costs while limiting our reliance on incarceration.

     These are some of the highlights of our work to improve reentry and recidivism outcomes. We've also been working hard on ways to help you beyond grants and technical assistance, and I know Denise will be here this afternoon to unveil some new opportunities.

     And let me say this: as pleased as I am with the work we're doing at DOJ, the success we're seeing in the field is due not to our efforts in the federal government but to the work you're doing in your states. We want to build on your success.

     There's no doubt we're making very good progress, but clearly there's much more to be done.

     We're here today to collectively share what we've learned, and to think about what elements should be part of our future plans for reducing recidivism. We need to begin developing explicit strategies that will help us meet the expectations the public has for us. We've done a great job orienting corrections and the criminal justice field as a whole around reentry. Now is the time to commit to public safety as our collective goal.

     I believe we have the support we need to accomplish this, both from Congress and from the Administration. And judging by your presence here today, corrections leaders in this nation and other state champions are determined to find ways to make our systems accountable for the safety of our communities.

     I think our work today marks the beginning of a major undertaking. So I applaud all of you for thinking big and for your willingness to come together to find solutions that work for all of us, and for the communities we serve. No one is saying this will be easy - in fact, it probably won't. But I look forward to the great things we can accomplish together as we move ahead.

     Thank you so much.


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