Corrections Leaders Visit with White House Staff about Criminal Justice Issues

April 7, 2017
white house meeting

From left: Secretary Wetzel, Director Kempf, Director Cook, Commissioner Dunn, and Secretary Tilley.

National and state corrections leaders visited the White House last week to discuss several key issues that they believe impact public safety in their states and others across the country.

The leaders, representing Alabama, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Utah, discussed a range of issues with members of President Trump’s Domestic Policy Council and the White House’s Intergovernmental Affairs team, including the importance of reentry and the value of Congress’s Second Chance Act, the need to get business leaders’ insight on putting formerly incarcerated people to work, and more closely examining crime nationally and locally to understand the latest trends.

“The Trump administration has made their commitment to public safety clear, and we met to discuss how the good work of corrections officials to reduce recidivism and improve public safety can be a key part of that equation,” said Kevin Kempf, former director of Idaho’s Department of Correction and now director of the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA). “Corrections administrators collectively oversee more than 400,000 staff members and supervise more than 8 million people. The impact we can make is enormous, and following a very productive meeting with the White House, we’re excited about the next steps.”

Kempf was joined by members of ASCA, including Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections Jefferson Dunn, Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections John Wetzel and Utah Department of Corrections Executive Director Rollin Cook. Kentucky’s Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley and Michael Thompson, director of The Council of State Governments Justice Center, also participated.

“It’s important for people to fully grasp the evolution of corrections in this country. We’re passed the days when a corrections administrator’s sole duty was to keep people from climbing over the wall,” said Commissioner Dunn. “We’ve realized that 90 to 95 percent of the people in our facilities are eventually going back to the community, and we need to think about how we can manage that transition to make it both safe and successful.”

Secretary Wetzel added that the decreases states are seeing in recidivism amount to the same kind of crime reduction that the White House is championing.

“Every industry learns new ways to be successful and updates its practices. Corrections should be no different. Doctors don’t put leaches on people anymore in order to cure the flu. We need to continue to apply the strategies that are proven to work to ensure people don’t come back to prison,” Secretary Wetzel said. “Successful reentry is real crime reduction, and corrections officials’ have a huge role to play in improving our nation’s public safety.”

This week’s meeting came on the heels of President Trump’s creation of the White House Office of American Innovation, which will look to business models to help inform improvements in the operation of government. Secretary Tilley noted the benefit of insight that can be gained from the business community when tackling the challenges formerly incarcerated people face when reentering society.

“Ask any person in prison to name the most important thing they need to succeed in the community upon their release. The response will almost always be the same: ‘I need a job,’” said Secretary Tilley. “I’ve been working in criminal justice for 25 years and I’ve never seen the business community more engaged in these issues. With those leaders at the table, we can better understand the opportunities and challenges associated with hiring a person with a criminal record.”

The meeting also came shortly after the U.S. Department of Justice announced the formation of Crime Reduction and Public Safety Task Force, which will be charged with developing strategies to reduce crime and improve public safety. The corrections leaders agreed that thoughtful approaches to reducing recidivism will be an important part to ensuring that the efforts of the task force prove successful.

“The transition process needs to begin the day these folks are incarcerated,” said Executive Director Cook. “I’ve been in corrections my whole adult life, and we know now that just incarcerating people doesn’t stop recidivism. And if we don’t properly address that, our communities are the ones at risk.”

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