Interview by Michael Soyfer
In the current budget climate, when we’re forced to make tough choices, why do you think Congress should continue to fund OJP and generally why do you think the federal government should be involved in the criminal justice system?
Most criminal justice in the United States, over 90%, is handled at the state and local level, and not at the federal level. So it’s a very good question to ask why Congress should be involved. But federal leadership is actually important. For example, in the area of collecting and disseminating statistics, no one state or local jurisdiction can do that. In the area of research, it’s unlikely that Providence, Rhode Island or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania would conduct a major study and evaluation on prisoner re-entry and disseminate that to every jurisdiction across the United States. And so, development of knowledge and dissemination of knowledge is uniquely a federal function.
And there are a number of other areas, like providing technical assistance and training, and dissemination of knowledge, that I think really require federal leadership. And the providing of seed money for innovation, that’s in addition an area where the federal government has a really important role to play. And I think particularly at a time when states and local municipalities are having to tighten their belts, and they’re facing hardship financially, they’re looking for know-how. They’re looking for ways to reduce costs by adopting evidence-based approaches, and finding the best way to reduce crime. They don’t want to be adopting programs that don’t work. OJP has been deeply involved in prisoner re-entry, especially since DANSAC was signed into law.
Why do you think that work is important, and how would you respond to critics who argue that such programs essentially reward prisoners after they’ve committed a crime?
Historically, the whole prisoner reentry movement started at OJP back in the 1990s when I was here earlier. One of my colleagues, Jeremy Travis, who headed the National Institute of Justice at that time, came up with the term and the concept of prisoner reentry. We started some piloted efforts back then, and then it really took off during the Bush Administration, and with a lot of efforts by Jeremy and others who were outside government at that time. But the Second Chance Act gave enormous impetus to President Obama, and of course he’s really gotten tremendous funding from Congress for that.
It’s a very good question to ask. Should we really be doing this? Is it our job to help ex-offenders? And I think the answer to that question is, that if we care about reducing victimization in communities, then we should care about changing the behavior of people coming out of prison, so that we’re not having to spend money on having them go back to prison and paying for those future prison costs. We want to turn them into good tax payers, people who are taking care of their kids, people who are earning money in the community and contributing to the community, and having law abiding citizens. It’s really for the good of the broader public.
How has the OJP changed or remained constant between administrations, and how have your priorities changed since your predecessors?
I think that one way it’s remained the same is that its connection with state and local criminal justice departments by the career staff has remained consistent over time, and more importantly it’s been responsive to state and local criminal justice and their constituencies. One way that it has changed dramatically from when I was here in the 1990s is the much greater degree to which it uses social media and web for a lot of the connections. We have many fewer print publications than we did in the past. We have a much greater connection with tribal communities than we did in the past. We have also created a greater focus on youth, which has helped tremendously. It is an extremely important issue for us.
When I came in, I announced that we have three priorities. One was to strengthen the connection with the field. I’m not sure that my predecessors were quite as focused on being responsive directly with state and local law enforcement. I invite them in, and do a lot of listening about what their priorities are. After Obama was elected and before he was inaugurated I met with ninety groups from across the different interests in the criminal justice system, hearing what they felt OJP should be doing and what more we could be doing.
How have recent efforts to curtail earmarks affected OJP grant money?
Previously, before Congress acted to curtail earmarks, we had in our appropriations hundreds and hundreds of Congressionally-designated projects, or earmarks. Since the change, now, for the second year in a row, we have none of those. So it’s a substantial difference. Two years ago we had hundreds and now we have zero. From my standpoint it’s a positive change, because there’s an opportunity with the appropriations Congress has given us, to have competitively awarded programs which everyone has an opportunity in the field to submit applications and compete for the funding.
Which OJP initiatives have made the greatest difference in the youth community?
Over time, in the Juvenile Justice Act, that the formula grant program itself, which provides money directly to the states, has different mandates in it. In other words, for the states to receive the funding, they have to comply with mandates that are in the law, which have different requirements. For example, to separate children from adults in jail, to remove kids from adult jails, to remove status offenders from jail, and one that addresses disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system. They’re driving change in the juvenile justice system.
These have made a tremendous difference since the Juvenile Justice Act was passed in 1974, and that has made it more than any of our formula grant programs an instrument of policy change. So that is really the core program in my mind and the one that has driven the mission of our group. It’s something that I really care about a lot.