One of the Justice Department agencies that President Donald Trump and Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions are inheriting is the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) which provides advice and funding to state, local, and tribal criminal justice agencies.
Obama administration appointee Denise O’Donnell left last week after 5 ½ years as director of the BJA. O’Donnell formerly served as the U.S. Attorney in the Western District of New York and the Deputy Secretary for Public Safety in New York State, overseeing 11 homeland security and criminal justice agencies. Before returning to her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., she spoke to TCR’s Washington bureau chief Ted Gest.
TCR: What is BJA’s overall mission?
Denise O’Donnell: I like to say that BJA is a “small but mighty” bureau in the Department of Justice that focuses on providing policy guidance and grant funds to state, local, and tribal stakeholders on criminal justice issues. Our budget is about $1.2 billion each year. There is never enough funding, but we try to make every dollar count and invest it wisely.
TCR: What are the agency’s major programs?
O’Donnell: Under our strategic plan, our mission is to reduce crime, recidivism, and unnecessary confinement, and to promote a safe and fair criminal justice system. We support many law enforcement programs, technical assistance, and training. We administer the Second Chance Act, with its focus on re-entry. We also support programs addressing mental health, substance use disorders and drug courts. We focus on justice system reform, justice reinvestment, as well as pretrial reform and public defense.
In the area of a “fair criminal justice system,” we focus on building trust between police and communities. We have a public safety officers benefits program and one on officer safety and wellness. A central focus of our work is to provide strong policy guidance to the field on adopting evidence-based practices.
One area that has evolved from that mission is what we call our “smart suite.” We started with smart policing, which promotes researchers working with police, and have expanded to nine other program areas, including smart prosecution, smart defense, smart corrections, and smart re-entry.
All of these programs involve practitioners working with research partners to address particular issues or strategies, to develop evidence of whether they are effective, and to use data in the process.
What’s been really interesting is that many of these disciplines, such as prosecutors, indigent defense, and re-entry, have not partnered with researchers before. The process has helped address issues with sustainability of grant-funded programs.
We have developed an academy to strengthen these research-practitioner partnerships. This has been held twice a year, helping leading researchers and justice practitioners strengthen their ability to work together, helping practitioners understand research methodologies and giving researchers a more concrete understanding of how programs are implemented.
This provides a unique opportunity to have experts from all the different program areas learn from each other, to question each other. It’s been an interesting process.
TCR: Why does the federal government need to perform this function?
O’Donnell: The federal government has an interest in promoting good, sound criminal justice policy. We can support innovation, new program models and pilot programs that can be replicated throughout the country. We look to promote best practices and best standards to improve our justice system.
Some states are doing this, too. One is Ohio, where universities offer their services to criminal justice programs to evaluate them.
TCR: Can you give an example of a jurisdiction doing something that might not have been possible without BJA assistance?
O’Donnell: The LASER initiative started with a smart policing grant in Los Angeles (it is an acronym for Los Angeles’ Strategic Extraction and Restoration). It is focused on using data and predictive analytics in high crime neighborhoods. It focuses on prolific offenders in those neighborhoods. That program has resulted in measurable decreases in violent crime and has expanded in LA since its smart policing grant ended. LASER is being replicated in Chicago and cities in New York and elsewhere.Another example is public defense programs that establish standards for lawyers who defend indigent clients. They are working together sharing information within their states.
In the prosecution area, some offices are working on diverting non-violent persons out of the criminal justice system into programs that address their behavioral health needs. The Manhattan District Attorney’ office is experimenting by identifying cases using a data-driven approach to prosecutions.
TCR: You mentioned the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), which is aimed at helping states reduce prison populations. What can you tell us about that?
O’Donnell: JRI is a very successful public-private partnership. Early on, the Pew Public Safety Performance Project had worked on a justice reinvestment in some states, and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, with support from BJA, was working on to work on it in others. The idea evolved into “why don’t we do it together rather than separately?”
JRI views prison reform through a public safety lens. The Justice Department’s participation is critical to the notion that JRI is about reducing crime and incarceration safely.
JRI has been a strong catalyst for state reform. Every state is unique in terms of having different drivers of the incarceration rate. The policies are different, and the politics are different.
JRI can approach each state uniquely. By using a data-driven approach, we try to remove any kind of preconceived notions or agenda from the process. Many states haven’t developed that capability of looking at the data and seeing what is driving incarceration rates in their state. That is a really valuable service that JRI provides. We have had bipartisan support from the highest levels of state government to enact laws to implement policies that are evidence-based. It is starting to see results.
TCR: What do you make of a recent report on JRI by the Urban Institute finding that many states where the program has been tried haven’t cut their prison populations?
O’Donnell: The JRI process has been used in about half the states. Many states are not far along enough in the process to make a judgment. A number of states have seen reductions, but reductions in prison population isn’t the only measure of success. One of the goals is to promote sound evidence-based policy in corrections. We have raised awareness about this issue, and we are seeing results.Many of the investments states had been making before JRI don’t result in good public safety outcomes, or impact high recidivism rates. This includes things like ineffective pre-trial practices and high probation and parole caseloads that don’t allow for effective supervision.
Also, many people have been returned to prison for addiction or behavioral health issues or for technical violations of legal conditions, which contributes to higher incarceration rates in many states.
JRI makes recommendations on ways to change those practices. It has been able to focus state policymakers on the need to reexamine these areas to institute reforms.
It has also been effective in teaching states to develop dashboards that they can use to monitor what is happening under JRI reforms. A portion of the JRI funding is devoted to technical assistance in implementing the reforms, and to institutionalize the reforms in their states
TCR: What is an example of a state that has made good progress under JRI?
O’Donnell: Georgia has been able to leverage different sources of BJA grant funding to make substantial progress. In its first year under JRI , the state focused on sentencing reform, and on creating a wide network of “accountability courts” as an alternative to incarceration. The second year, it focused on juvenile justice reforms, and the third year on re-entry. Georgia has applied successfully for our grants — and leveraged them to successfully reduce prison costs and incarceration while maintaining public safety.
A number of states are going through the justice reinvestment process more than once to expand reform efforts and focus on areas not addressed in the state’s initial effort. Pennsylvania is now undergoing a second round of JRI focused on probation and parole reform . (For more, see The Crime Report, Jan. 20, 2017).
A number of states are not waiting for prison population reductions to invest in programs like community corrections but are doing so at the beginning of the process. They realize that if they don’t invest in alternatives now, they may need to build additional prisons at a cost of millions of dollars.
Some states have found that many of the anticipated savings from JRI don’t materialize in terms of concrete dollars. Often the savings is in the category of avoided or “averted” costs, which makes identifying reinvestment dollars more challenging. The JRI process recognizes that states make their own determinations of what they’re willing and able to accomplish in terms of reform.
TCR: Where do we stand dealing with prisoner re-entry into society?
O’Donnell: We have made major efforts to improve the re-entry process and providing technical assistance for jurisdictions to be able to use risk and need assessments to focus limited resources on high risk individuals with the greatest needs.
We’ve really expanded our work with other agencies like HUD, Health and Human Services, and Department of Education that are willing to meet the multitude of needs of justice involved persons returning to our communities.
We have funded a national re-entry resource center to provide technical assistance and resources to support re-entry efforts around the country.
One program that’s particularly important focuses on recidivism reduction efforts by state corrections systems. Another is focused on comprehensive community-based programs.
We are also supporting a Second Chance Act Fellow in a project to learn more from the formerly incarcerated community about their needs, and to learn from individuals who have succeeded about what has helped them succeed to further inform our Second Chance Act programs.
TCR: Is prisoner re-entry a long standing issue? The Second Chance Act goes back to 2004.
O’Donnell: We must look at the fundamental role of government: If we incarcerate people, 95 percent of whom return to our communities, we must find a way to transition them back to the community safely. Re-entry is not an easy thing to accomplish. The needs are great and resources are limited. We’re doing better at it, learning from research.
Janet Reno started to ask about some of these questions when she was Attorney General in the 1990s. Before that, we weren’t really thinking about what we were going to do with all the people who are incarcerated, and eventually being released to our communities.
Rand Corporation research funded by BJA shows that the role of education in re-entry is particularly noteworthy. We’re only scratching the surface in our investments in educational programs in prisons and jails. Education plays a major role in helping people succeed. We are making some inroads in piloting college education programs for inmates in state prisons, and hope that will continue.
Federal appropriations under the Second Chance Act are only about $67 million annually, which isn’t much, considering there are 600,000 people leaving prison every year, and hundreds of thousands leaving local jails.
We know there isn’t a lot of money out there; that’s why we have to make it count and focus on programs that keep people out of prison and jail in the beginning.
TCR: Do you have any idea how the administration of Donald Trump and Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions will view BJA’s programs?
O’Donnell: Take a program like justice reinvestment. The majority of JRI sites are in conservative states. It is led by governors, and state legislators and the judiciary in very conservative states in the country who recognize a need to reduce corrections spending and safely reduce corrections populations. There has been strong bipartisan support for the Second Chance Act, and for law enforcement programs such as the VALOR officer safety and wellness program, training programs such as Blue Courage, and programs like the Violence Reduction Network (VRN) to reduce violent crime.
One of the only new criminal justice programs that received funding in recent years in a continuing resolution from Congress to fund the government is the CARA law (Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act), which provides aid for the opioid crisis, drug treatment, and resolution to fund the government is the CARA law (Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act), which provides aid for the opioid crisis, drug treatment, and alternatives to incarceration.
So I am optimistic that bipartisan support for these and other BJA programs will continue. These programs are common sense good government investments.
TCR: The BJA budget of $1.2 billion is not very large by Washington standards.
O’Donnell: That’s right, and look at our broad cross-country reach. We’ve worked to ensure that funding is well-managed, used effectively, and is having an effect, with programs that can be replicated across the country.
TCR: If a program you’ve funded doesn’t work, do you terminate it?
O’Donnell: When we see a program that is not meeting expectations, we work hard to improve it. One example is Project Safe Neighborhoods. An evaluation of it showed that in some jurisdictions, it was working really well, and others were not. We converted the program to a competitive program that is data-driven and requires a high degree of collaboration among public safety agencies and their communities, and made it highly effective. We are constantly working to evaluate our programs.
The DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) is another example. Studies found it not to be effective, and we have found other ways to provide that education that is more effective.
We’ve also developed a strong focus at BJA on enabling criminal justice practitioners to respond more quickly to emerging issues. We’ve developed several highly effective “tool kits” on topics Including implementation of body-worn cameras, naloxone to reverse drug overdoses, and police responses to mental health issues, all of which provide valuable information for law enforcement and communities.
We recognize that it is a vital federal role to provide critical information to the field as quickly as possible to address pressing criminal justice issues. The beauty of it is that the most valuable information comes from the field and our job is to collect and translate and disseminate it as widely as possible.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.