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November 01, 2012

The Justice Department and Reentry Policy Building Engagement, Improving Outcomes

By James M. Cole

Public safety requires incarceration and few would dispute that imprisonment is, at least partially, responsible for the dramatic drop in crime rates in recent decades. We need to hold accountable those individuals who commit crimes—either through incarceration or through other effective and appropriate sanctions. But a complete strategy for criminal law enforcement should include more than just imprisonment. To be truly effective in finding comprehensive solutions to address crime in our communities, we also need to prevent crime—and here reentry plays an integral role. By preventing the occurrence of crime in the very first instance and providing individuals reentering our communities from jails and prisons with the tools they need to succeed and turn away from crime after release, we can be more cost-effective and make our communities safer. And by balancing prevention and reentry efforts with enforcement and imprisonment, we can reinforce our commitment to being smart, as well as tough, on crime.

For our nation’s Department of Justice (DOJ)—and for a wide range of allies, advocates, and dedicated members of the bench and bar across the country—prisoner reentry represents one of the most complex criminal justice challenges of the twenty-first century. The scope of this problem and the impact of unacceptably high recidivism rates can’t be overstated. Particularly in recent years, we’ve seen that the costs associated with these phenomena are significant.

Statistics Demonstrate Reentry Is Not Easy

Today, 2.3 million Americans—more than 1 in 100 adults—are incarcerated. Recent estimates by the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics suggest that more than $74 billion is spent on state, local, and federal corrections on an annual basis. Nearly one-quarter of the DOJ’s annual budget is devoted to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). With a federal prison population totaling nearly 219,000, the BOP operates its institutions at 38 percent over rated capacity on average. Overcrowding is of special concern at higher-security facilities—with about 51 percent overcrowding at high-security facilities and 48 percent at medium-security facilities. In response, the BOP has had to manage crowding by double- and triple-bunking inmates.

We’ve seen that reentry provides a major opportunity to fight crime and make our communities safer by reducing recidivism and victimization. We’ve come to understand that prison population growth can be curbed through the successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals into society as law-abiding citizens. And we know that curbing prison growth in the long term can save taxpayer dollars incurred for prison costs.

With more than 700,000 individuals leaving state and federal prisons each year—and millions more cycling through local jails—a total of approximately 95 percent of all prisoners are eventually released to their communities. We expect that these individuals will strive to rebuild their lives and become productive members of society. But, as so many judges and prosecutors routinely see firsthand, the fact is that successful reentry is seldom easy. About two-thirds of all state prisoners are rearrested within three years, and 40 percent of former federal prisoners are rearrested or have their supervision revoked over a similar period. This creates a revolving door that, over time, becomes increasingly difficult to stop.

Success Requires a Hands-on Approach

As the attorney general and I have repeatedly affirmed, this situation is simply unacceptable. And, as a growing number of jurists and legal professionals from across the country have come to understand, such systemic challenges demand a coordinated, national response. Especially in these difficult economic times, it’s become clear that we must employ innovative and evidence-based strategies—and leverage the strength of broad-based partnerships—in order to tackle criminal justice challenges like reentry in a way that enables us not only to protect public safety, but also to contain and control runaway costs.

In advancing this work, every participant in our criminal justice system has a distinct, and important, role to play. Investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, prison officials, and probation and parole officers—not to mention workforce specialists, treatment providers, and local faith-based institutions—each has a responsibility to help maximize public safety and promote justice in the course of their daily efforts. It’s only by working together that we will be able to break this destructive cycle, protect the safety of Americans and their families, reduce criminal justice spending, and improve the overall quality of our communities. Reducing recidivism rates also will allow us to better serve the victims of crime, as an employed and productive reentrant is far more likely to satisfy his or her restitution obligations than one who has been rearrested and reconfined.

In order to further these goals, it is necessary to change our way of thinking. This may increasingly mean looking at appropriate alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent defendants as effective ways to hold individuals accountable. It may mean reexamining—and, where appropriate, challenging—conventional wisdom to attain the best possible results for formerly incarcerated individuals as well as the community at large, including potential victims of new crimes that may be avoided. And it may mean investing in innovative strategies for equipping those who leave our prisons with the necessary skills and support to reenter society, change their behavior, and become productive, tax-paying citizens upon their release.

Such a shift will not be easy. No comprehensive solutions are possible without an investment of time, resources, and energy from a full range of partners at every level. However, with increased cooperation and collaboration, there is good reason for confidence in our ability to bring about positive results and long-term institutional change. Under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, who has long been passionate about reentry policy, we’ve taken steps to ensure that reentry is a priority area of focus throughout the DOJ. And we’ve already begun to make progress—and to build momentum—that will enable the DOJ and its partners to lead the way in taking our comprehensive reentry efforts to the next level.

The Judiciary Plays an Invaluable Role

We count members of the judiciary as essential partners in this effort to drive effective reentry strategies. Among the most promising, but not exclusive, venues for such collaborations are reentry and problem-solving courts, which have been explored by federal, state, and local officials.

The National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ’s) Multisite Adult Drug Court Evaluation and other studies have confirmed that state and local adult drug courts reduce both recidivism and public safety costs. Specifically, the studies show that these courts significantly reduce drug use and criminal offending during and after program participation, and are more cost-efficient than traditional case processing and supervision, netting benefits of $5,680 to $6,208 per participant on average.

Reentry courts build on many of the same principles and pillars utilized by drug courts. They do the same as drug courts in that they leverage the monitoring power of the judicial system to hold individuals accountable, ensure close supervision, and address behaviors that lead to criminal conduct in the first place. And like drug courts, some reentry courts specifically focus on individuals with substance abuse problems.

Although we have not yet seen the results of as rigorous an evaluation of reentry courts as has been done for drug courts, some small studies have shown early results that are both promising and positive. For example, according to an 18-month examination of the first 60 participants in the Supervision to Aid Reentry (STAR) reentry court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, only 10 percent of these STAR program graduates were rearrested during the study period, compared to 31 percent of a similar control group.

A comprehensive, multiyear review of the effectiveness of federal reentry courts is currently being conducted by the Federal Judicial Center. NIJ is also conducting a rigorous evaluation of reentry courts funded by the Second Chance Act (SCA), with the goal of assessing the impact of these programs; determining how they’re affecting rearrests and returns to prison and jail; discovering whether they’re reducing the number of new convictions and parole violations; and evaluating whether they’re cost-effective. The DOJ looks forward to learning the outcomes of these studies. In the meantime, my colleagues and I will continue to encourage the prudent exploration of the potential positive impact that the formation of additional reentry courts may have. And we will keep relying on members of the judiciary and others to provide candid feedback, thoughtful analysis, and essential expertise in helping to design and implement these and other possible solutions.

Reentry Preparation Begins Before Release

In order to be successful, reentry preparations must begin long before an individual’s day of release from a prison or jail. Recognizing this, each year the BOP and state and local corrections entities undertake extensive preparations to help incarcerated individuals successfully rejoin their communities. For BOP, this process begins for federal inmates on the very first day of imprisonment. BOP officials provide a number of programs to assist individuals in reentering our communitites—such as those ranging from mental health, to substance abuse treatment, to education and vocational training and work programs. And programs like our Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) help reduce recidivism and save taxpayer money. For example, RDAP participants are 16 percent less likely to recidivate compared to similar inmates who do not participate. Similarly, inmates who participate in vocational training are 33 percent less likely to recidivate compared to similar, nonparticipating inmates. For inmates in Federal Prison Industries, and education programs, the figures are 24 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

At the same time, the BOP continues to explore strategies for expanding these and other programs. We have reemphasized to federal corrections staff the critical role that each and every one of them plays in ensuring the successful reentry of soon-to-be-released individuals. As prisoners finish their sentences, DOJ professionals are taking steps toward more critically assessing specific reentry needs—working to target those with higher risks and higher needs for placement in residential reentry centers (RRCs), while sending those with lower risks and needs directly to home confinement. This “triaging” approach builds on the science of risk assessment and helps to improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness in the use of limited numbers of available RRC beds. But it’s not the only approach we’ve taken to strengthen key practices and bring about more desirable outcomes.

Beyond Enforcement: The Role of the Prosecutor in Reentry

Our determination to build comprehensive reentry policies has led the DOJ—primarily through our U.S. Attorneys’ Offices—to increasingly pursue partnerships with state and local stakeholders. It has also led Attorney General Holder to designate reentry as one of the three central components of his comprehensive Anti-Violence Strategy for U.S. Attorneys, alongside prevention and enforcement.

Through this strategy, the DOJ is working to encourage federal prosecutors to think comprehensively about the criminal justice process—and to critically examine other ways to improve public safety, beyond traditional enforcement. Notably, we’re also placing an increased reliance on criminal justice stakeholders and community leaders to help guide and inform future efforts.

In fact, in January 2011, I sent a memorandum to all U.S. Attorneys’ Offices reversing an outdated DOJ policy that discouraged our prosecutors from participating in reentry programs. Now, all U.S. Attorneys’ Offices are encouraged to become actively involved in reentry courts and other viable reentry programs.

To this end, last fall, we unveiled a new reentry toolkit for U.S. Attorneys’ Offices that provides a wide variety of information and resources, including several successful examples of effective participation by U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in federal reentry courts and other initiatives, such as outreach events for employers to explain potential opportunities and advantages in hiring formerly incarcerated individuals. Some U.S. Attorneys have already convened or are participating in Reentry Councils to bring state and local partners together to improve reentry practices. Many also have participated in jointly sponsored “call-in” programs, presenting recently released individuals with a host of options for community support while reiterating the potentially devastating consequences of returning to criminal activity.

By augmenting the work of federal authorities and building close engagement with state and local partners, the DOJ is demonstrating its dedication to fostering collaborative new approaches for strengthening our reentry policies. But we also play far more than a convening role.

Department Support to State and Local Entities

Through the Office of Justice Programs’ (OJP) Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the DOJ is providing direct—and significant—financial support to a wide range of government agencies and nonprofit organizations that are leading the way in administering reentry strategies that include not only evidence-based corrections and supervision strategies, but also employment assistance, housing, mentoring, substance abuse treatment, family programming, and other services designed to reduce recidivism. Under the SCA signed into law in 2008 to improve outcomes for people returning to communities from prisons and jails, BJA and OJJDP have awarded more than $250 million in grants to some 400 grantees across the nation. In the first three years of its existence, Congress has appropriated a total of $208 million to support SCA programs, which the DOJ has in turn distributed to more than 370 competitively selected grantees.

More Research Is Key

At every level, an integral component of our work must include expanding the base of knowledge about what works and gathering the information needed to establish viable reentry programs where they are most needed. Today, NIJ is supporting cutting-edge research to help enhance our understanding of the impact of incarceration and the value of effective reentry strategies. Through studies focusing on the link between criminal records and desistance from crime, NIJ is examining factors that can help smooth the path toward reintegration. And we are working to disseminate information about reentry programs that have already been evaluated.

It’s become clear that evidence-based initiatives that concentrate resources on moderate- and high-risk individuals must be the cornerstone of any effective strategy for making our communities safer. Earlier this year, we launched a new information clearinghouse—the What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse—that provides a synthesis of research for practitioners seeking guidance in identifying effective programs and practices. The Clearinghouse is part of the National Reentry Resource Center, a one-stop shop for state-of-the-art information and assistance that is funded by the BJA and operated by the Council of State Governments. It can be accessed at http://www.nationalreentry

Reentry Transcends the Criminal Justice Realm

As we build upon our efforts, we recognize that the importance of reentry resonates in agencies and offices across the federal government. Through the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, the attorney general has shown tremendous leadership in bringing together 20 federal departments and agencies to coordinate critical discussions on ways to reduce barriers to employment, housing, treatment, and education—and to implement strategies for improving outcomes in each of these areas. For example, Reentry Council agencies have issued guidance to prospective employers on how to use criminal records as part of the employment process and increased public education regarding available incentives for those who hire individuals with past involvement in the criminal justice system.

The American Bar Association (ABA) is also performing important work in the context of improving outcomes for those with a criminal conviction. With funding provided by NIJ, the ABA is conducting a study of the collateral consequences of criminal convictions in every jurisdiction in the United States, that is all 50 states, the federal system, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories. The ABA has catalogued over 35,000 statutes and regulations that may impose collateral consequences. Some of these laws and regulations serve important public safety purposes, but others may create unnecessary barriers for an individual who has already completed his or her term of incarceration to become a productive citizen. The project has launched a “National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction” Web site, where a database of collateral consequences has been made available to the public. This Web site will prove to be a useful tool for those with an interest in reentry policy.

The federal government and a number of states are taking important steps to assess regulations and statutes that impose collateral consequences and to determine whether any can or should be eliminated or more narrowly tailored in order to facilitate more effective reentry. Last spring, Attorney General Holder asked each state attorney general to undertake such a review.

Looking Toward the Future

Although in recent years we have seen great strides in addressing a host of critical reentry issues, a great deal of work remains to be done. By formulating inclusive outreach and response plans that address community needs and uphold the central tenets of our nation’s criminal justice system, we can disrupt the destructive cycle of recidivism. And by investing in and implementing data-driven approaches for preparing formerly incarcerated individuals to rejoin their communities as law-abiding citizens, we will be able to help make our neighborhoods safer and our communities, homes, and schools far more secure.

As we move forward in these efforts, the DOJ is proud to count a diverse community of judges, prosecutors, defenders, members of the private bar, and law enforcement leaders as critical partners. We are eager to continue working alongside these colleagues, challenging conventional wisdom, tearing down traditional “silos” of responsibility, and forging new bonds of engagement in order to bring about lasting, long-term results. We recognize acutely that our future success will be determined not only by our resolve to address major problems, but also by our ability to directly support state and local authorities and to aid in the implementation of drug courts, reentry courts, and a host of other programs designed to provide individuals with the help they need. With the continued leadership of judges, policymakers, and passionate advocates across—and even beyond—America’s criminal justice community, I am confident in our ability to keep this momentum going—and to improve upon the extraordinary progress that’s already been made.

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By James M. Cole

James M. Cole is deputy attorney general for the Department of Justice. He has also served as a trial attorney in the Criminal Division and as the deputy chief of the Division’s Public Integrity Section.