Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks for the 2022 Safety and Justice Challenge | OPA

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Hello everyone. Thank you, Laurie, for that kind introduction.

It’s so good to be here with all of you to help kick off the 2022 Safety and Justice Challenge network convening. I want to acknowledge the presence of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, who is here today and whose office is doing important work on the issues we all care about. And it is wonderful to see everyone together for your first in-person meeting in three years.

You are here from all over the country, working as leaders in your communities to help ensure public safety, end unnecessary jail incarceration, and increase equity for all. You represent law enforcement, the courts, crime victim organizations, justice-impacted individuals, prosecutors and defense attorneys, non-profit organizations and service providers. It is inspiring to see you working across professions and breaking down siloes, to drive data-informed, local approaches to public safety and justice.

Around the country, you are implementing innovative pretrial justice and diversion programs, second look hearings, reentry programs and drug treatment and mental health services. And for the next few days, you will be together to share ideas and promising practices, and to learn from one another. Through all of your work, you are staying focused on public safety, while moving jails away from being the warehouses for people who are poor, lack housing or suffer from mental illness or addiction that they all too often are.

This work you are doing to promote safety and justice could not be more timely. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated long-standing disparities in health care access and outcomes, education and employment, and responses to those struggling with mental health and addiction. George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests renewed a necessary and urgent conversation in this country about community trust, equal justice, and policing. I know for many of us, those events strengthened our resolve to work for strong, safe and healthy communities.

Today, I am honored to be joining you on behalf of the United States Department of Justice. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland has said:

“Ensuring the rule of law and making the promise of equal justice under law real are the great principles upon which the Department of Justice was founded and for which it must always stand.”

Equal justice demands a criminal justice system where all people are treated fairly and equitably, and where people can feel safe and protected in their communities. It demands addressing long-standing inequities in our systems of justice. And it demands that we work in partnership with stakeholders from all corners — government, non-profits, and elsewhere — in recognition that we cannot separate challenges in our justice system from challenges in access to stable housing, nutritious food, well-paying jobs and quality healthcare.

I want to highlight just some of the work the Justice Department has done over the past year and a half to fulfill our duty to pursue equal justice, centered around three areas (that will be familiar to you):  building public safety partnerships, including beyond the criminal justice system; generating and sharing more accurate and effective data to inform better policy decisions; and supporting innovative approaches to justice reform and public safety.

First, the importance of partnerships and bringing in others who may not think of themselves as part of or connected to the criminal justice system.

For too long, we have placed entrenched social problems at the feet of police, expecting them to do more than they can or should with the limited tools of arrest and incarceration. But we know, and all of you know, that we need to adjust our lens, to zoom out and take in the bigger picture. Individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system — perhaps by entering one of our jails — are often facing numerous challenges. They might need a stable place to live or a secure, good-paying job, often both, and often much more. If we think of public safety as only the purview of the “criminal justice” system, we miss out on so many possible supports and solutions for those in need.

Last year, the Justice Department convened the Reentry Coordination Council, an interagency working group, with six other federal agencies — the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, Veterans’ Affairs and Agriculture. And we met with stakeholders — people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system, service providers, and those studying policies and programs related to reentry. We issued a report to Congress, highlighting federal agencies’ present and future efforts to mitigate or eliminate the many barriers that individuals face during reentry.

Among the efforts highlighted in the report:

  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons has partnered with the Department of Labor (DOL) on a number of initiatives to increase job readiness for those leaving BOP custody, including an apprenticeship program that allows people to obtain nationally recognized DOL credentials.
  • The Department of Education is working with us to fully restore financial aid in approved prison education programs. The program will now offer Pell Grant support to 200 colleges for their prison education programs. Providing education in prisons has been shown to reduce recidivism, heighten employment opportunities for individuals upon reentry, and improve public safety.
  • And, in April, the Office of Housing and Urban Development announced that it is conducting an agency-wide review of all existing regulations and policies, with the goal of reducing barriers to housing for people with criminal histories and their families.

One of the recommendations of the Reentry Coordination Council was to solidify partnerships between agencies and expand our interagency collaboration on reentry to include related issues and more partners.

In May, as part of his Executive Order on Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety, the President established a federal interagency Alternatives and Reentry Committee. The “ARC” (as we call it) brings together more than two dozen agencies and offices within the federal government to think creatively about three areas, or pillars: (1) safely reducing unnecessary criminal justice interactions; (2) supporting rehabilitation during incarceration; and (3) facilitating reentry for people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.

The President, through the Executive Order, charged the ARC — and all its many member agencies — with developing a government-wide strategic plan to address these issues. Because of the Justice Department’s unique role administering and overseeing many aspects of the federal criminal justice system, we are also putting together our own strategic plan, which will highlight policies, programs and initiatives we will be working on within each of the ARC’s three pillars. Though our strategic plan is specific to the Justice Department, the interagency nature of these collaborations helps ensure we are thinking beyond our agency, and beyond even the criminal justice system itself.

One specific example of building partnerships to advance equity and public safety came in our efforts to address the evictions crisis. As all of you know and no doubt have seen firsthand in your communities, housing instability can have serious and long-lasting effects, and can exacerbate or even lead to justice system involvement. I know SJC, together with the Urban Institute, is addressing these issues head-on through the Just Home project, in Charleston, Tulsa, San Francisco and Minnehaha County in South Dakota.

Evictions, in particular, disproportionately affect women and people of color. And last year — again, as I know you have seen — the effects of the pandemic exacerbated the housing crisis, and threatened to increase eviction rates to catastrophic highs.

With this in mind, last June, I sent a letter to state court chief justices and court administrators around the country, urging them to implement eviction diversion strategies and encouraging courts to build out more comprehensive programs that might include access to counsel. I have been gratified to see that many courts have taken significant action since last summer. For example:

  • The Indiana Supreme Court announced the creation of a new program that will require local housing courts to inform landlords and tenants about the availability of rental assistance and mediation.
  • The New Mexico Supreme Court announced a pilot program that uses court-based facilitators to encourage early resolution of housing problems.
  • And in New Hampshire, a new court-based program is proactively encouraging tenants and landlords to meet before they reach the courthouse to resolve their disputes ahead of time. If that doesn’t work, mediators will be made available at the courthouse to encourage resolution and allow families to stay in their homes.

We often think of judges as arbiters, not necessarily as partners or resources. But our experience — and I know many of yours too — shows that judges can be key actors in addressing difficult legal issues.

Next, I want to talk about something near and dear to your hearts —data. To evaluate problems, inform solutions, and measure success, we must collect accurate and comprehensive data and make that data usable and widely accessible.

The data we have about public safety — whether it’s information about arrest rates, jail populations, or probation and parole — is often in siloes across the country, making it difficult to timely analyze.

That is why we developed the Justice Counts initiative, which we launched publicly earlier this year. Justice Counts is designed to help states make better decisions with criminal justice data that’s more timely, less disjointed and as useful as possible. Together with our partner, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, we brought together criminal justice leaders to come up with metrics that will help employ data in a way that is clear and meaningful for policymakers.

For each sector of the criminal justice system — for example courts and pretrial—Justice Counts selected fewer than a dozen metrics that are most crucial to telling the story of how criminal justice is operating in that sector. The idea is for the metrics to be simple, feasible and commonly collected by agencies. We want to give policymakers, legislators and budget officials real-time information that they can leverage to make informed fiscal and policy decisions without expensive upgrades in technology and additional person-power.

We are announcing new awards of grant funds for states to implement these recommendations: Georgia, Arizona, Illinois, Oregon, Wisconsin and North Carolina are the first states to receive grants to adopt the Justice Counts metrics and put them to work.

Our hope is that when states adopt these metrics, they will provide policymakers, stakeholders, and the public with timely, wide-ranging information on their criminal justice system that they have never had — or had in one place — before.

Last, I know I don’t have to tell anyone in this room how important it is to support creative ideas and innovative approaches to problems.

The Justice Department is delivering substantial resources to states and communities to spur innovation in every facet of our criminal and juvenile justice systems. This year, the department’s Office of Justice Programs is making thousands of awards totaling almost $57 million to help push forward needed reforms, improve the systems’ effectiveness, and advance equity.

Today we are announcing almost eight million dollars in funding for eight grants through our Field Initiated: Encouraging Innovation program. Field Initiated projects are based around new and innovative strategies to better enable criminal justice systems to prevent and respond to crime. Projects must aim to address a gap in the current base of knowledge and/or test a new idea about responding to and preventing crime.

Four of this year’s Field Initiated awards are focused on the pretrial phase of case processing, and include innovations like text message reminders for upcoming court dates — we’ve come to expect such things from our doctor’s office, why not the court system?  These programs — in New York, Texas and New Jersey — will help address underlying conditions and untreated needs of those coming into the system. And they’ll expand deflection and diversion opportunities.

As you all know from the incredible work you’ve done in this area, expanding opportunities for diversion and other pre-trial reforms is critical, and we are proud to help seed and expand these efforts through our grants.

And for the first time, our Office for Victims of Crime is issuing a grant award to better understand the service needs of persons harmed by their interactions with the criminal justice system, determine whether existing services can meet the needs of this population and offer recommendations for appropriate service delivery, resources, partnerships and tools. The New York City Criminal Justice Agency will use these grant funds to better understand the experiences and needs of the detained pretrial population in New York City. In collaboration with a mental health service provider, they will explore their experiences and perceptions of the criminal justice system, as well as what needs and assistance they might need because of their detention. This is groundbreaking work for OVC that will help inform our broader pretrial efforts.

Also this year, our Bureau of Justice Assistance is funding a new effort, called “Reimagining Justice.” The idea behind Reimagining Justice is to test new community safety strategies that complement traditional enforcement and that may help better address community needs. Our goal here is to enlist and empower community stakeholders in solving public safety problems.

Today, we are announcing funding for a project by Rutgers University in Newark called “The Newark Public Safety Collaborative: Empowering Community Organizations to Become Co-producers of Public Safety.” 

Under this award, the Newark Public Safety Collaborative will seek to democratize the use of data and analytics in order to empower community organizations to become “co-producers” of public safety and mobilize community resources and expertise to help problem-solve Newark’s most pressing crime issues. The result will be a coordinated response between community-based organizations and law enforcement working collectively towards the common goal of delivering public safety that is focused on crime prevention. 

The department is pleased to provide financial resources to these awardees that are using innovative approaches and partnerships for public safety and justice.

I want to thank all of you again for giving me to the opportunity to join you today, and for your dedication to this work.

The legitimacy of our justice system and our democracy depend on our shared work to turn the fundamental values of fairness and equality under the law into reality.

The Justice Department remains tirelessly committed to fulfilling our founding responsibilities to protect our democracy and our communities, to uphold the rule of law and to ensure equal justice under law. Thank you for your partnership in these efforts.

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