Good afternoon, everyone and thank you for that warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here and it’s a privilege to join this group of passionate advocates, dedicated public servants and engaged community leaders as we gather to recognize the inspiring contributions of our Champions of Change.
All of us want to be seen for who we really are. We want the opportunity to let our voices be heard, our talents shine, our true selves be known. But it is so easy in our society to place a label our fellow citizens and think we know all there is to know and have said all there is to say. Immigrant, baby boomer, millennial, techie, ex-convict, former inmate. The changes these champions we honor today have wrought are indeed borne out in the jobs created, the work done, the lives affected. But that change is borne in something deeper and more fundamental – in their choosing to see the person behind the label, the man or woman behind the prison number. And by doing that, these outstanding honorees are doing their part to build a more equal, a more just and a more inclusive America. They are working to help those who have served time in prison earn a living wage; find decent housing; access adequate health care; and exercise their right to vote. They are bringing quality education into prisons, laying the groundwork for inmates to realize their full potential upon release. They are fighting to dismantle structural inequities, like questions about conviction history on job applications. They are employing justice-involved individuals, judging them for their present talents and not their past transgressions. And, most importantly of all, they are setting a powerful example of fairness and compassion – an example in keeping with our country’s best traditions and highest ideals.
Their efforts are vital to this administration’s drive to make our criminal justice system more efficient, more effective and more fair. Each year, more than 600,000 Americans are released from federal and state prisons and another 11.4 million people cycle through local jails. In all, approximately 70 million Americans have a criminal record – almost one out of every three Americans of working age. Far too often, these individuals find that their past mistakes have collateral consequences that endure long after they have paid their debt to society. Because of their records, they often find it difficult to obtain an I.D., to get an education, to find a job, to rent an apartment, to cast a ballot – in short, to secure the rights and responsibilities that are essential to a stable and productive life.
These are enormous obstacles and they will not be overcome overnight. But the Champions of Change that we honor today remind us that each of us has a role to play in addressing injustice – and that together, there is no problem we cannot solve. From the advocate who drew on his time in prison to launch the transformative “Ban the Box” campaign, to the executive who contracts with Federal Prison Industries, the Justice Department’s most successful job training program; from the family-owned bakery that teaches baking skills to reentering individuals, to the Ivy League university that’s reaching out to the inmates of nearby prisons, today’s honorees are using their particular gifts and talents to expand opportunity and promote equality.
At the Department of Justice, we are committed to this effort. I’m here today as part of the department’s inaugural National Reentry Week, a nationwide undertaking to raise awareness about the urgency of reentry issues. As part of this observance, I’ve asked every U.S. Attorney and every Bureau of Prisons Warden to organize reentry-related events in their jurisdiction and by Sunday, we will have held more than 500 events across the country, from job fairs to legal service clinics. And earlier this week, I was in Philadelphia, where I had the pleasure of announcing the “Roadmap to Reentry” – a strategy document that lays out a vision for a number of changes in how the Bureau of Prisons facilitates reentry, bringing our practices into closer alignment with our belief that reentry truly does begin on the first day of incarceration. The individuals I met at a roundtable with returned citizens in Philadelphia only reinforced my commitment to this work and confirmed my conviction that once people have reentered their community, they can help pave the way for others. One person I met now owns his own small business; another is studying to be a nurse. And all spoke movingly of their desire to help others make the most of their second chance.
The developments we have announced in the last few days build upon our ongoing efforts to give all our returning citizens the opportunities they deserve. We’ve extended more than $68 million in Second Chance Act grants to promising state and local reentry efforts. With the Department of Labor, we’ve established the National Clean Slate Clearinghouse, a one-stop resource for local legal aid programs, public defenders and reentry service providers seeking to improve their capacity to help clients with record-cleaning and expungement. And through the Federal Interagency Reentry Council – which I am proud to chair – we’re working with agencies throughout the administration to develop comprehensive strategies for addressing a wide range of issues related to reintegration – from homelessness and mental health to education and poverty.
I am extremely proud of what the Department of Justice – and the entire Obama Administration – has accomplished so far. But change cannot flow exclusively from the top down; in our republic, it must also swell from the ground up. That’s why I am so grateful for – and so inspired by – the contributions of the men and women that we are honoring today. You have stood up, spoken out and extended a hand to those who need it most and in doing so, you have embodied who we are as a country and demonstrated the very best of what we stand for as a people.
I want to thank each of you for your exemplary work. I want to salute you for setting such a compelling example. Thank you for looking at our returning citizens – our fathers and mothers, our sisters and brothers – and truly seeing them.