As a federal prisoner, Clarence Aaron worked at every level of a prison-run manufacturing facility in Alabama. But when his life sentence was commuted by President Obama in 2014, he found those skills couldn’t get him a job.
Standing before a wooden podium in the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of Alabama, Aaron had praise for the Bureau of Prisons program that trained him and allowed him to save $1,000 a year, but deep frustration with the workplaces who weren’t interested in hiring former felons.
“BOP gives you a whole lot of training,” Aaron said. “But once you’re released into society it’s all null and void.”
Among the small audience assembled in the bland conference room was Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who recently finished her first year on the job with a tour of the men’s federal prison where Aaron used to live, a briefing at the U.S. Attorney’s office and even a short a one-on-one meeting with Aaron.
In a wide-ranging conversation with TIME on the flight back to Washington, Lynch reflected on what Aaron said.
“He did everything that we tell inmates to do, he got an education, he advanced up the career ladder, and then there’s no way to translate that into an effective employment base outside,” she said. “What we need to focus on is making sure that businesses recognize the value of the work he’s done.”
Lynch had just wrapped a week of events that highlighted the Justice system’s efforts to prepare inmates for return to society. Several announcements from the administration had come as a result; a call for governors to make it easier for returning citizens to get ID cards, efforts to increase health coverage for former inmates, and a proposal to ban the box for federal employees.
The transcript below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’re about a year into office, is this the issue you expected to be taking on? Is this where you wanted to be a year in, especially since going in you were dealing with Baltimore and issues involving police reform?
It is. This issue is something that I looked at in the ’90s. When I was the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn under [Attorney General Janet] Reno, she was talking about reentry, she was talking about diversion and drug courts at that time, but we didn’t have this national conversation on it. But we knew that if, for example, people who were incarcerated got a degree the recidivism rate goes down by a significant amount the higher amount of education they get. We knew that if they had jobs, the recidivism rate goes down. I saw that then and always thought if we’re going to talk about making a whole system more fair, we have to talk about reentry also. We will always have a strong law enforcement component to everything we do. We protect the American people, that is our core mission. But we’re also the Department of Justice and justice means fairness and equality in how we deal with everybody who comes through the system as well.
Today you were able to hear from inmates and Mr. Clarence Aaron, a former inmate. His remarks seemed to send a signal that there is a lot of work ahead, despite the announcements the administration made this week. What did you take from his comments? How will his stories and the others you heard today help shape policy back home in Washington—particularly as it relates to bridging the gap, as Mr Aaron put it?
I thought that he hit the nail on the head with that as being an important issue. We pinpointed it in our Roadmap to Reentry that I’ve done about the Bureau of Prisons as something that’s important because we were concerned about that, but to hear it in his words, particularly an individual who did so well with all the programs in prison. He did everything that we tell inmates to do, you know, he got an education, he advanced up the job ladder, the career ladder. And then there’s no way to translate that into an effective employment base on the outside. That’s always the challenge. Hearing that what we need to focus on is making sure that businesses recognize the value of the work he’s done is something that we’re going to have to work on. We’re going to have to really focus on ways to characterize the work that the guys do and the women do in the prisons as transferable skills. That’s really going to be the key, I think. If you’re an employer you can look at what Clarence Aaron did and your question is going to be, “OK, how does that transfer to my place of employment?” As almost anyone who is changing careers can tell you, that is a hurdle that you have to jump. So as we go back and look at policy and focus on what we’re going to for people who are just getting out, in halfway houses and we need to give them the continuity that we’re talking about this is going to be an important issue for us.
How does ban the box speak to that? And what will it take to expand those programs across the country?
The federal government, we hope, will be an example to the private sector and the value of banning the box to show that if you get through the system to the point where you were considering their background along with everything about them—we’re not saying ignore it, we’re not saying ignore what anyone has done, we’re saying consider it along with everything about the person. Give them a fair chance. We’re hoping to be a leader in that. The federal government is a huge employer. A number of companies have that taken the pledge, the one that I mentioned that came into the White House earlier this month, we hope will also be business leaders in recognizing the value of welcoming returning citizens back. As with every every industry, when we talk with them we’re cognizant of their own security needs, we’re cognizant of the issues that they have to balance and we want to work with them to make sure they can strike that right balance so that they can ban the box. If they have to consider an issue —maybe it affects where they place an employee, maybe it affects the kind of training they give that employee, maybe that employee won’t be right for them, but at least they’re making that decision based on everything about the employee.
Are there programs that can be that bridge?
There are a lot of different programs out there one of the things that we’re trying to do is get a handle on what’s out there so that when inmates leave they can in fact have a handbook of the next step to go to. One of the things that I’ve heard from other formerly incarcerated individuals when I’ve had roundtables in different cities is the need for a support system for the first weeks or months after release. We take that very seriously. I’ve seen programs in various cities–I was in Boston where people can get an apprentice license for a trade while they’re incarcerated and will be able to go directly into a job. Those jobs work with them a lot on other skills. That direct placement model is one thing that works fairly well. That isn’t going to work in every community or every profession, but that’s an example of things that we’re looking at.
You toured a prison today in Talladega, Alabama. There was an interesting moment at the inmate roundtable you sat in on at FCI Talladega where an inmate, named Tony Moses threw out the idea that maybe you would release him. Do you have any thoughts on that? What were you thinking when he said that?
I think that it certainly, I think every inmate probably has the hope of an early release and if there are programs that he could enter into that would give him that opportunity I hope he would take advantage of them. Some of the programs give inmates the opportunity to hve some time shaved from their sentence, all the inmates I met today seem very committed to working, not just on their job skills and on their interpersonal skills and on themselves. That’s the real benefit of these programs. It’s my hope that if there are programs like that he would take advantage of them.
Anything surprise you? Anything stand out from the tour?
I knew that FCI Talladega had terrific programs, and I certainly had heard that they were doing well in so many areas. I will say the Residential Drug Treatment Program was tremendous. I think that it really showed that people can make the kind of change that isn’t just about getting a degree or learning a trade, that is internal to them. I think that it takes a lot of courage to sit in a room full of people that you think are going to judge you and admit that you have weaknesses and admit that you don’t have all the answers and take constructive criticism from other people and then to stand up and try to provide that for other people. I thought that it was a very, very powerful program. I found it very, very moving.
The Obama administration has clearly made this issue a priority—how confident are you that the momentum that currently exists to implement criminal justice reforms will continue in say a Trump administration?
As a Cabinet member, I don’t comment on candidates. I don’t have a comment on anyone’s potential administration. They’ll work that out for themselves, whoever is in the White House. I do think that the goal is to have these issues be recognized and certainly for this administration, it is to seize this moment when there’s bipartisan support but there’s also uniformity of thought. There’s a human cost and a financial cost, it’s a cost to us as a society in terms of how we treat people. There’s really been a connection on that. Many states have been leaders in that, states that have different demographics, different political backgrounds and leanings, they’ve all come together. Texas has been a leader in this, actually, in terms of prison reform. In terms of working with the federal government to get grants for Second Chance Acts, for reentry courts and the like. My home state of North Carolina has also done similar things. And those states have seen the crime rate go down as they invest in returning citizens. It is certainly me hope that the practicality and the success of these programs will live on long after this administration.
Criminal justice reform has proven to be a bipartisan issue, but there are other issues that the administration has taken up that are exposing some divisions. For instance, LGBT rights. How is Justice working with departments to consider pulling federal money from North Carolina as a response to their transgender bathroom law?
North Carolina legislature came back this week considering a lot of options about the bill so we’re obviously looking to see what that bill will look like in the end, will that bill exist in the end so right now we’re monitoring that situation.
Do you take it as a symbol of questions that we still have to work out as a country when it comes to what justice means?
I think it’s a symbol of the fact that a lot of people do find change difficult. They find new ideas and change hard and they will often have a reaction to it that isn’t the one that we hope that they would have that isn’t the choice of fairness and inclusion. It’s one based on misunderstanding. That happens in human history. It’s my hope that we can move beyond that and that we can look at, as we protect the most vulnerable members of our society, the elderly, children, human trafficking victims that we focus on the fact that transgender individuals are often victimized. They’re often discriminated against. If we’re going to move as a society towards a fair and more inclusive country, we have to protect their rights as well.
The Supreme Court arguments in a case involving the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell indicated a lot of skepticism over the way Justice has interpreted federal corruption laws. How damaging would it be for the cause of prosecuting public corruption if the court were to rule against the government in this case, and raise the standard for bringing public corruption cases?
We don’t have a decision yet so I’m not going to speculate as to what it may be. We will obviously wait with anticipation for that decision, look at it closely, and follow to law.
It’s been about 10 months since the Charleston shooter was arrested, but the department has not yet announced whether or not it will pursue the death penalty in that case. Is the administration reconsidering the death penalty in the wake of Charleston?
No, I would say that the case is being considered like any other case. We’re getting recommendations from the U.S. Attorneys’ Office, from the U.S. Attorney. It all comes to me for the final review and recommendation and we’re moving through that process.
The DEA, a part of DOJ, is currently reviewing possibly downgrading marijuana from its current Schedule 1 status. Do you think marijuana deserves to be classified as a drug that is as dangerous as heroin or LSD?
I will wait for their review. I think the issue in terms of how you schedule any drug is dependent upon what alternate uses there are for the drug. I’m going to wait for their review and see what their conclusions are before I comment.