Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Delivers Remarks at the Office of National Drug Control Policy Drug Policy Reform Conference

Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)—December 9, 2013. Thank you Gil for that introduction, for your partnership, and for your tireless work on drug prevention, drug treatment, and criminal justice strategies to break the cycle of drug use and crime.  It is an honor to be among this dedicated and diverse group of professionals, policymakers and community leaders whose work promotes public health and safety.  The agenda for this conference is both important and timely. 

At the Department of Justice, we have undertaken a number of initiatives that address the law enforcement, public safety, and public health aspects of drug policy reform.  Law enforcement plays an indispensable part in protecting communities from drug-related crime and violence.  We know that there are dangerous people out there, running drug organizations and committing murders as part of the drug trade.  Those individuals need to be incarcerated for the crimes they commit. 

But there are also lower level drug defendants.  Many suffer from their own drug abuse issues, and fall into a vicious cycle of drug abuse, criminal behavior, incarceration, and release.  Too often, this cycle repeats.  But recognizing that these lower level drug defendants don’t present the same public safety risks as the more serious criminals, our approach to dealing with the problems posed by drugs should not be one-size-fits-all.  Instead, we should look to provide a range of responses that include the chance to overcome an addiction, provide the opportunity to get help before going to prison, and provide an off-ramp from the vicious cycle of drugs and crime.

This approach could result in the avoidance of a criminal conviction in the first place or it could positively affect the defendant’s ability to successfully reintegrate into society in years to come.  It shifts the paradigm by providing treatment and services to individuals who are motivated and truly want to turn their lives around.  The advantages to this approach are many: we not only assist individuals and their families, but we gain the ability to improve public safety and public health, directly benefiting our citizens and our society and more efficiently using taxpayer dollars. 

Together with our state and local law enforcement partners in the field — whose tireless work keeps our communities safe — we continue to make real inroads in protecting public safety.  Even within limited budgets, we have been able to focus our efforts on prevention and reentry, as well as enforcement.  For example, through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, the Department has brought state leaders, local stakeholders, private partners, and federal officials together to reform corrections and criminal justice practices.  In recent years, no fewer than 17 states – supported by the Department, and led by governors and legislators of both parties – have directed funding away from prison construction and toward evidence-based programs and services that are designed to allow states to provide drug treatment and reduce recidivism.  And the results are telling:  many participating states have seen drops in recidivism rates and prison populations, while still maintaining public safety. 

We are doing the same thing in the federal system because it has become clear that the trajectory of the federal criminal justice system, left unaltered, is unsustainable.  Dollars are finite and the increasing costs of the federal prison and detention population drain funds from other enforcement priorities.  They take dollars away from the Department’s prevention and recidivism reduction programs, and limi our capacity to fund other pressing criminal justice and national security priorities, such as hiring more agents and prosecutors or providing support to state and local partners to help in the fight against violent crime.  Put simply, if we don’t find a way to reduce the federal prison population, public safety is going to suffer. 

To try to address this problem, earlier this year the Department embarked on a review of its criminal justice policies.  We made some specific changes to existing policy and strengthened our commitment to our prevailing goals.  We modified the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, non-violent drug defendants who have no significant ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels, will no longer be charged with offenses that impose mandatory minimum sentences.  Instead, these low-level drug defendants will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct.  By reserving the most severe prison terms for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers or kingpins, we enhance public safety. 

The Department is also promoting and strengthening its diversion programs – such as drug treatment initiatives – to provide more effective alternatives to incarceration for some individuals.  This summer, the Department issued a “best practices” memorandum to encourage more widespread adoption by prosecutors of programs such as drug courts, specialty courts and other treatment courts. 

And to make sure these programs are a top priority, every U.S. Attorney now must designate a Prevention and Reentry Coordinator in his or her district to ensure that this work is done.

In addition, the Bureau of Prisons has expanded capacity for its Residential Drug Abuse Program, which provides important treatment to inmates.  This expansion will provide more non-violent inmates with the opportunity to deal with their drug and mental health issues that are so often at the root of criminal behavior, so they can successfully re-enter and become productive members of society.   
Our reforms also include changes in the Department’s framework for considering compassionate release requests.  We expanded the medical criteria that can be considered and announced new criteria including allowing consideration for elderly inmates and certain inmates who are the only possible caregiver for their dependents.   
And finally I want to talk about the Federal Interagency Reentry Council.  Created by the Attorney General, it brings together over 20 federal departments and agencies to focus an all of government approach to helping those coming out of prison.  This collaboration works to reduce barriers to housing, employment and education and increase access to healthcare and treatment for those re-entering society.  And this collaboration has borne fruit – not only by increasing the chances of successful re-entry for those leaving federal prison, but also helping incarcerated veterans get back on track, assisting children of the incarcerated, and reducing the unnecessary collateral consequences of a conviction.  Across the federal government, we are partnering to strengthen communities, reduce recidivism, and improve public safety. 

This morning, I’ve discussed several steps the Department has taken to build upon successes and make changes to our criminal justice system.  In light of our limited resources, we have had to take a hard look at our policies and our priorities, and have recommitted to maintaining public safety in a manner that is both smart and efficient when battling drug related crime and the conditions that breed it. 

As we move forward with these and other reforms, we will continue to stand and work alongside you, drawing upon your experience, relying on your expertise, and depending on your engagement to refine and strengthen each new proposal.  Today’s conference — and the exchange of ideas it will foster among our Nation’s drug policy experts — is a necessary and important step in this process. 

Thank you.