Denise O'Donnell, director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, discusses the Bureau's strategic mission and holistic approach to justice reform. She also outlines the Bureau's new suite of Smart on Crime programs.
The following is a transcript:
DENISE O’DONNELL: We see reducing recidivism and reducing unnecessary confinement as going hand in hand with making our communities safer.
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi, this is Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. I am here today in San Francisco at Community Justice 2014, and our national summit focusing on community justice, and I am very pleased to welcome Denise O'Donnell, who is the director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, part of the Department of Justice, who gave a keynote address here this morning at the opening of the conference. Welcome to the New Thinking podcast.
O’DONNELL: Well it's great to be here, Rob, and it's great to be at this conference. The room is electrified. There's so many innovators in the room, judges who've been working and championing community justice programs and community courts, district attorneys, prosecutors, service providers, and representatives from 10 countries who are really focusing on community justice, so it's a great summit.
WOLF: Well, in your opening remarks, you laid out what the Bureau of Justice Assistance has been most recently interested in, and I heard you describe sort of an evolution in the Bureau's thinking, and what you're focusing on. I thought maybe you could share some of that now with our listeners.
O’DONNELL: Well thank you. you know, BJA adopted a new strategic plan last year that I think does refocus our mission more holistically on justice systems reform and our mission overall is to reduce crime recidivism and unnecessary confinement, and support a safe and just criminal justice system. And that's changed and evolved over the years, where we see reducing recidivism and reducing unnecessary confinement as going hand in hand with making our community safer. And so we've taken an approach that really looks at the research that we have, amassing the data that we have available in the criminal justice system, and forging creative and innovative solutions that make our community safer.
WOLF: You have a whole suite of new initiative, pre-trial is one of the focuses, and calling the initiatives smart prosecution, smart pre-trial. So maybe you could explain a little bit about what those are, and a little bit about your interest in tackling pre-trial issues.
O’DONNELL: Sure. Well, we have created a smart on crime suite of programs, and a few years ago, BGA started an initiative called the smart policing initiative to really pair police departments with criminal justice researchers to develop new strategies for fighting crime that are based on research and evaluations, and produce outcomes. And that has been enormously successful. Police departments focus on a whole gamut of issues, everything from violence reduction to procedural justice programs, and we are really seeing some of the outcomes, so we feel that it's growing the evidence, it's growing willingness on the part of police departments to innovate. And so given this holistic approach that BGA has taken, to look at just assistance reform, we decided to expand the smart policing initiative into a suite of programs. So we now have, for the first time this year, a smart pre-trial program, we have a smart prosecution program, that was actually supported in the budget this year by Congress, and we have a smart supervision for probation and parole program. We originally also had a program aimed at indigent defense, called answering Gideon's call, and next year we're going to turn that into a smart defense program. So we'll have covered the whole gamut of the criminal justice system, and they have some features in common. First of all, they're data driven, so we really look at the data to see what are the drivers in the criminal justice system in all of those areas. Secondly, they all require a practitioner research partnership, both to help analyze the data but also to evaluate the outcomes of the program, and third they do require an investment in evidence-based, or at least promising strategies, so that we can grow the evidence about what works in the system. I think pre-trial is such an important area for everyone to consider nationwide. 60 percent of the people in our jails, many of which are overcrowded in the country, are there before trial, and before they've been adjudicated guilty. And I think that's a number that astounds a lot of stakeholders in the criminal justice system, and certainly the public.
WOLF: We're talking about jails as opposed to prisons, so the local facilities.
O’DONNELL: Right, we're talking about the local jail. We know that our current system doesn't work. So high risk, even dangerous offenders, can get out on bail, and many low level, non-violent offenders stay in jail pre-trial, at great cost and expense, and certainly not getting any programming or any services that would be of value to them. So this year, through our smart pre-trial initiative, we're actually funding pilot programs to take a comprehensive look at their pre-trial program. Again, using data from looking at researchers who are researching now about what works in the pretrial area. There are risk assessments, instruments that have been developed and validated in many jurisdictions so that we can be smarter about the decisions about who should be detained before trial, and certainly some individuals should be, for community safety, and who should not be. And certainly rectifying any situation where people stay in jail simply because they can't afford to post a low level bail for a minor offense.
WOLF: And there are a lot of negative collateral consequences to being held in jail pre-trial, aren't there? Especially for people who are only there because they can't make bail.
O’DONNELL: It's true. The Arnold Foundation has recently published a research study that I think has caught a lot of attention in the criminal justice community, which indicates that it's more likely individuals who are detained and will be sentenced to longer periods of incarceration, even for similarly situated people, depending on their particular individual dangerousness to the community, and more likely to recidivate, which is also another dimension that we really haven't looked at before. And so we can really be making people worse - low risk offenders - by actually keeping them detained on a pre-trial basis. So there's a lot of good reasons, I think, for community safety to examine our pre-trial programs nationwide.
WOLF: Let's talk a little bit about community courts, which is a significant focus of the summit here in San Francisco. How do you see community courts fitting into the Bureau of Justice Assistance's goals as you described them, to reduce recidivism and reduce unnecessary incarceration. Do they fit in here?
O’DONNELL: I think they are a wonderful innovation and it's really gratifying to see how the concept has taken off, because we have a number of mentor community courts represented here, at the summit, and the jurisdictions that they have worked with, who have started other community courts as a result. It's also interesting that the first community courts in Midtown Manhattan, and then in Redhook, that the Center for Court Innovation obviously was instrumental in starting, are really focused at low level and quality of life offenders, and it's been fascinating to see how the concept has grown, and that jurisdictions essentially kind of mold the concept to fit their unique circumstances. So some of the courts that we've heard from, now are focusing on non-violent felony offenses because they think that there is a lot of opportunities to intervene with low level and non-violent felony offenders, rather than go through the entire incarceration and adjudication process, and also the fact that it's so much more productive in terms of individuals who are addicted, individuals who have other kinds of mental health needs, and so many opportunities that can be achieved through a community court, that the focus on the community engagement and how the community is invested in what goes on in their community courts is also so important. And then there's really exciting new research and evaluations that show the contribution that community courts make in the whole area of procedural justice and fairness, and while maybe that wasn't the original concept behind community courts, it certainly has been part of the DNA that community judges are very engaged with the community, they interact with the people before them, many times look at their entire family circumstances, so it's understandable that the evaluation is showing that people that go through the community court experience are more likely to succeed, have lower recidivism, and are more engaged in the outcome of the system.
WOLF: Well, I thank you so much for taking time to talk with me. I've been talking with Denise O'Donnell, who is the director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the Department of Justice, and we are at the Community Justice Summit 2014 in San Francisco. I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. To learn more about community justice, visit www.courtinnovation.org, and you can listen to our podcast there and on iTunes. Thanks for listening.