Asking our prisoners: “What Do You Need?”
April 29, 2014
Only by emphasizing prevention and reentry ... do we have a chance to make a real and lasting impact.
Thank you, Jim [McGreevey], for that very nice introduction. And thank you to both you and Mayor Fulop for having the vision and commitment to organize this conference and for bringing us all together. The program looks incredible and my only regret is that my schedule won’t allow me to stay after my speech. But this topic is so critical and so central to the mission of my office that I am honored for the opportunity to kick off the program by highlighting what the Justice Department is doing across the country and, in particular, here in federal court in New Jersey.
Every other Tuesday at 5:00 in the afternoon, about two dozen people come to a courtroom on the second floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Courthouse in Newark. At first, it looks like a lot of other proceedings in that courthouse. A federal Magistrate Judge, Judge Madeline Cox Arleo, sits on the bench. In what we call the well of the courtroom, at the two tables usually occupied by lawyers or their clients, there are a couple of lawyers from the federal Public Defender’s Office; four people from the U.S. Attorney’s Office; and at least one or two probation officers. Behind them, sitting on the benches usually occupied by spectators, are about 15 other people.
But this proceeding is different. Everyone on the benches has very recently left federal prison—some with a stop at a halfway house, others directly from jail. And one by one, each of them is called to the front of the courtroom and sits down at one of the tables to talk to the judge. “How is your daughter,” she asks one. “Tell me about your new apartment,” she inquires of another. “Can we help you print your resume?” “Do you want a lawyer to help you get a payment plan so you can get your driver’s license back?” “Do you have to leave early today to get to class?” And, finally, “What do you need?”
And as you listen to her questions, and hear the answers, and watch the interaction among all of those people, you begin to realize there is something very special, and really inspiring, going on in Courtroom 2A.
The last time those defendants were in that courthouse, lawyers from my0 office were asking another judge to send them to prison for a substantial period of time. The last time those defendants were in that courthouse, a different judge explained why the things they had done and the crimes they had committed required that they receive a meaningful term of incarceration.
Now when they walk in, members of my office and court personnel are editing their resumes, teaching them how to interview for a job, and offering to tutor them in math. The judge is helping them to register for college, find apartments, and get jobs—and is literally taking them to a charter school to help them enroll their kids. Now that they have served their time, those defendants are being asked by lawyers and staff from that same U.S. Attorney’s office and by a federal judge working with probation officers and public defenders, “What do you need?”
How did we get here? And is there an inconsistency in our approach?
The answer is “no.” We have a crisis in this country. Our federal and state prisons currently house 1.5 million people. Hundreds of thousands more are in local jails. In all, we estimate that more than 1 in 100 adults are behind bars. More than 200,000 are in the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons, and it is my job, and the job of the people who work in my office, to put several hundred more there every year. In my judgment, they have committed crimes for which jail is the appropriate punishment.
But for almost all of them, their incarceration doesn’t and shouldn’t last forever. More than 95 percent of federal prisoners will be released and, when they are, the overwhelming majority go home—or somewhere near where they once called home. And it is on that journey and at its destination that they may well fail if they don’t have help.
Many come back to families that are barely intact, if they are there at all. Housing is hard to find, and jobs even tougher. It’s hard enough in today’s economy for lots of people without criminal records to find work, and here we’ve been particularly slow to recover. Imagine what it’s like for those just out of prison to compete in that environment.
And then add in the educational obstacles. Of the 20 fastest growing occupations, 13 require postsecondary education. But only 22 percent of prisoners have any postsecondary experience, compared to more than half of the rest of us. Two in five prison and jail inmates—40 percent—lack a high school diploma or its equivalent.
Even when ex-offenders get a job, they face an uphill battle. A report from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by more than 10 percent, cut annual employment by more than two months and reduced yearly earnings by 40 percent.
And it turns out that the ability to find a job after being released from prison is one of the greatest predictors of success on the outside. But without the foundations that the rest of us work so hard to build and maintain—the things that quite frankly we sometimes take for granted—the recently released are often alone, tempted by their past lives, sometimes still on the hook of an addiction, and too frequently with too few alternatives to falling, or stumbling, back into a life that they want to avoid if they can.
So it’s hardly surprising that so many fail. In fact, nationally, two out of every three people released from state prisons will be arrested again within three years of their release. Half of those released will end up back in prison in that time. Released federal prisoners do a little better: they have a 40 percent chance of being re-arrested or having their supervision revoked—which would send them back to prison in their first three years out.
These numbers and the realities they represent are daunting. With roughly 700,000 people coming out of our state and federal prisons every year, plus the millions that flow through jails at the local level, recidivism has terrible consequences for the lives of offenders and their families. It has serious, serious implication for public safety. And with resources already severely strained at the federal, state and local levels, it just costs too much money. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that more than $74 billion is spent on federal, state and local corrections annually. And it costs nearly $30,000 to house a federal inmate for a year.
So how do we stop this terrible cycle?
At the national level, my boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, has convened a Federal Reentry Council to try to bring down the barriers that stop former prisoners from succeeding. The council comprises 20 federal agencies, all with common goals: to make our communities safer by reducing recidivism and victimization; to help those getting out to become productive citizens; and to save limited resources.
How do they do that? Part of it is just raising awareness. There are a huge number of misconceptions out there about the rights and obligations of those who have served time. Can they live in public housing? Yes. Can you get tax credits for hiring them? Yes. Can employers get bonded against theft? Yes. And so, among other things, the Council has promoted and published on line a series of what they call “mythbusters,” answering those questions, among others.
Part of it is knocking down systemic barriers and obstacles that make it difficult for people who have already been held accountable and paid for their crimes to contribute productively and to support themselves, their families and the economy.
In April 2011, Attorney General Holder sent a letter to every state Attorney General citing a comprehensive study by the Justice Department and the American Bar Association cataloguing more than 38,000 statutes across the 50 states and other territories that impose collateral consequences on people convicted of crimes. Although some of those restrictions serve public safety, many impose unnecessary burdens—including denial of employment and housing opportunities—that cripple an individual trying to make a new start. So he asked the states to evaluate relevant laws and policies and he made the Department’s resources available to provide support. And we in the Department of Justice looked to our own house—conducting a review of federal collateral consequences identified in the study.
Early last year, also under the Attorney General’s direction, the Justice Department began a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system—including charging, sentencing, incarceration and reentry—to identify areas in which federal laws could be enforced more fairly and efficiently. The idea was to figure out which practices were more successful and which might actually be working against our goals.The resulting initial reform package—called the “Smart on Crime” initiative—is already driving us to reexamine our priorities, more fairly enforce laws and apply just punishments, strengthen protections for vulnerable populations and focus even more strongly on prevention and reentry.
The final piece is targeting services to the population we’re trying to reach. This has to start in jail. As the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons has pointed out, most federal inmates leaving prison need “job skills, vocational training, education, counseling, and other assistance such as drug abuse treatment, anger management, parenting skills, and linkage to community resources for continuity of care if they are to successfully reenter society.” In other words, today’s BOP realizes that reentry begins the day an inmate enters a facility, not the day the inmate leaves it.
And it must continue in halfway houses where many federal inmates begin their reintegration. But for too long, the policies and culture of those facilities were actually counterproductive in many ways. So just last month, Attorney General Holder announced that the Justice Department would require federal halfway houses—which saw 30,000 inmates go through their doors in just the past year—to enhance their treatment services. Those facilities will now have to provide a specialized form of treatment to prisoners, including those with mental health and substance abuse issues, provide greater assistance to inmates who are pursuing job opportunities—such as permitting cell phones to be used by inmates and providing funds for transportation—and expand access to equipment that allows more inmates to reenter society through home confinement.
But even that isn’t enough. So here’s how we got to courtroom 2A:
Three years ago, I asked people in my office—and then in the courthouse—if we could do better. I asked if we had the resources—the time, the money, the commitment—to try something new. There were others who were already running or participating in reentry projects around the country, but we had never done it in federal court in New Jersey. Those conversations, and the hard work of a lot of people, led to the development of the first federal reentry court in New Jersey—what we call our “ReNew” program. That hard work, and most of all, the hard work of the program participants who have dedicated themselves to reimagining their lives—is why courtroom 2A is such a special place.
Because we know that it isn’t enough just to provide the right services; we must provide them at the right time in the right place. Former offenders are at a unique crossroad—poised to become law-abiding contributors or frequent flyers in the criminal justice system. They need to know the path of redemption is theirs to choose—and that they will be supported in their journey and their decision to leave what is familiar and trade it for the prospect of a better future.
To be clear, this isn’t a program for white-collar criminals who just did 18 months in a minimum security prison. The participants in our program were convicted of manufacturing and distributing of dangerous narcotics, selling and transporting firearms, and other very serious and dangerous crimes. They served years—in some cases 10 years or more—in federal prison and were predicted to be some of the most likely to reoffend.
Because of those challenges, it isn’t all smooth sailing. They have to work long hours at difficult jobs—sometimes more than one—and pursue challenging education and other programs to make progress. Some have family members who aren’t supportive and others have the wrong friends who want to reunite with their old buddies. Some just aren’t quite ready to turn away from their previous lives.
So, like everybody else, some of our participants make mistakes. There are excuses, impediments, and apologies. And there are sanctions. Some have to stay in the program for longer, losing credit. Some end up being directed to do some community service and others get some additional house arrest. But all of it—all of it—is geared toward getting these individuals back on their feet, ready and able to make it. And every two weeks, they remind us why this work is so important and they impress us with their ability to evolve and persevere.
Amare Terrell was a straight “A” student until, at around the age of 13, he began to rebel against his mother. He was sent to live with his paternal grandparents and with his father—a heroin addict who introduced him to the drug culture of the streets. He dropped out of high school, had a number of run-ins with the law, and in December 2008, was prosecuted by my office for conspiracy to distribute heroin.
Last year, he was one of the first to participate in our reentry court. Now, in front of Judge Arleo and the other participants, Mr. Terrell is leading in a different way. He obviously takes his role as a father seriously; he talks to the judge about his need for health insurance and a 401(k); and he is focused on what he needs to do to keep his life on track. A couple of months ago, right before one of the 700 snowstorms we had this winter, another participant told Amare that he was worried because he didn’t have any food in his house. And, as many of you know, grocery stores aren’t so plentiful in the urban parts of Essex County. Mr. Terrell told him to meet him at the grocery store in 10 minutes, where he bought him $70 worth of groceries. And, with our encouragement, Mr. Terrell recently spoke to a group of people suspected of committing the worst crimes in a neighborhood and presented a powerful message about what he lost when he broke the law. Next month, Amare Terrell will be one of the first four to graduate from our program. We know how much that means to him, and we hope he knows how much that means to us.
Also graduating is Eddie Wilson. Eddie’s mother and father were intravenous drug users who died of HIV/AIDS. He was raised by his grandmother who also passed away when Mr. Wilson was still a teenager. He was prosecuted by my office for selling guns and ammunition to an undercover ATF agent.
From the start of reentry court, Mr. Wilson was focused on getting his college degree, which has led to his being called the “Professor” in court. But his dedication is clear. He lived in a shelter until he could save enough money to pay for an apartment. But he never seemed down. When asked by the judge about his situation, he might say it was hard because he didn’t have any food. Or he might let her know that he had to be out of the shelter by 7:00 in the morning. But he would also say that it was probably good, because it made him get up to start studying. And the judge, encouraging his dedication, helped him to get a job at the college he attends.
Like Mr. Terrell, Mr. Wilson shows real ownership in this program. More than a few times, he has discovered and told us and the other participants about different programs that might help with rent payments or furniture. Through these efforts, he has probably taught the team as much about reentry as they have taught him.
Muhammed Shabbaz is one of the newest participants—he was released from a halfway house in mid-February. He also has the distinction of having served 14 years or so in prison—one of the longest sentences of anyone in the reentry court—for distribution of heroin and cocaine. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, he comes across in court as someone who is spiritual and has thought a great deal about how he wants to live his life and what comes next. He has a job, and has resumed a stable relationship with the woman to whom he was engaged when he went to prison. He has a facility for math, and will likely return to school to study accounting.
One side note on the extent to which our reentry court is full service: shortly after he joined the program, Mr. Shabbaz told the court that he had resumed living with his longtime girlfriend, and that they had had a religious wedding but weren’t formally married. Judge Arleo offered to perform the ceremony. He put her off. She offered again. And again. And again. She even offered to buy a cake. None of which is surprising if you know Judge Arleo. Finally they set a date. He and his wife wrote their own vows. And one Tuesday evening, not so long ago, in Courtroom 2A, we all learned Mr. Shabbaz is not only good at math, but he’s also a bit of a poet.
Today, you will hear other stories from Judge Arleo, from Tom Eicher, the Chief of our Office’s Criminal Division, and perhaps from Mr. Terrel, Mr. Shabbaz, Mr. Wilson, or their colleagues. You will hear about their successes and their failures, their excitement and their despair. You will learn that, as much work as the reentry team does to find job opportunities, housing, furniture and even schools and daycare for their children, it is the participants themselves who direct and control their experience. It is our job, our responsibility, to give them the opportunity to do just that.
And it’s not just for them. As long as 1 in 28 children—and 1 in 9 African American children—go to bed each night with an incarcerated parent—as long as our kids are continuing the cycle of generational crime by embarking on lifetimes of involvement with the justice system—our work is not done.
I, and the people who work with me in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, understand that we will only succeed if we take a multifaceted approach to law enforcement. We understand the need, as Attorney General Holder, has said, to be smart on crime. We will never arrest our way out of the problems of crime. Only by emphasizing prevention and reentry, together with enforcement, do we have a chance to make a real and lasting impact on the violence and other issues that plague our communities.
On Monday night, I sat at my family’s Seder, and reflected on the ideas of redemption, of spiritual reawakening, of the rebirth that comes with spring—all themes of Passover. This Sunday, Christians will celebrate Easter, a holiday that celebrates many of the same ideas and hopes, and our collective ability to stretch beyond our limitations, to change ourselves for the better.
I, and the people who work with me on the ReNew court, understand that promise and we see it every day. No matter what our religion, we are a group that believes in second chances.
Redemption is about the triumph of hope over despair—the belief that we all have the potential for and the ability to change, and perhaps to do so dramatically, even if the road is hard. And even if we need someone like a judge to look us in the eye and ask: “What do you need?”