Remarks by Vice President Harris Before a Roundtable Conversation for Second Chance Month

April is Second Chance Month to address the barriers individuals face with criminal records and unlock brighter futures for returning citizens, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic as they re-enter the workforce. Vice President Kamala Harris gave her remarks before a roundtable conversation at the White House featuring Kim Kardashian. 

The Vice President:  Well, good afternoon, everyone.  I — before the press came in, I — I thanked the leaders who are at the table who will be sharing their stories with us this afternoon.  And I mentioned to them that their stories are indicative of stories around our country of extraordinary people who have demonstrated the importance of us as a society understanding the power of redemption. 

And so, we’ve asked these four extraordinary individuals to share their stories as a way to help people who are not in this room understand how we can do better, in terms of how we are thinking about the criminal justice system and who has been in it.

And so, I’ll start by saying that I want to thank Kim for your advocacy and for using your platform in a way that has really lifted up the importance of talking about and being dedicated to second chances.  And you are going to speak in a moment, but I really thank you for being here and Mayor Benjamin, of course, for moderating the conversation.

So I’m a big believer in the power of redemption.  It’s an age-old concept that transcends religions but is fundamentally about an understanding that everybody makes mistakes.  And for some, that might rise to the level of being a crime.  But is it not the sign of a civil society that we allow people a way to earn their way back and give them the support and the resources they need to do that?

And so, that’s why we have convened today to talk about the power of individuals when supported by a community, by society — the power that they have to do extraordinary things that benefit all kinds of people in terms of where they live and the people they meet, their family members, and others.

So, again, I welcome the four of you for being here.  And — and I’ll tell you, I have worked on this issue my entire career, and I know it works.  I know that it works to give people second chances. 

Back when I was elected DA of San Francisco in — I was elected in 2003, started in 2004, and I’ve created one of the first reentry initiatives in the country.  In fact, back then, the United States Department of Justice designated my program, Back on Track, as being a model of innovation for law enforcement in the United States.

And I designed it focused on first-time drug sales offenders — and most of them were in their 20s — and getting them into an initiative that was about job training — the building trades and the unions were very helpful and a great partner around apprenticeship programs; parenting classes; helping folks with housing.  All of the things that any person needs to actually be productive.

And we proved that it worked.  It was one of the first in the country.  We reduced recidivism by 80 percent with that program in San Francisco.  Then, when I became Attorney General of California, running the California Department of Justice, I created the first division on recidivism reduction and reentry, highlighting how state attorneys general but state — states as a whole and law enforcement, in particular, can and should be dedicated to this concept of what we can do around reentry and reduction of recidivism.

For a number of reasons, yes, it is about reduction but also is about public safety.  Right?  Reduction of recidivism is about reducing crime and doing it in a productive way, which realizes that sometimes we really ought to think more about what’s the return on our investment, and we actually get a lot more out of our investment if we invest in the capacity of people instead of reacting after they’ve done things that might warrant a — a prosecution.

And then, of course, now, as Vice President, we have continued this work.  Our President, Joe Biden, has a longstanding commitment to the issue of reduction, of recidivism.  And while we have been here, then, at the White House, we’ve done a number of things that have been about allowing people second chances through understanding the obstacles that also still exist within society that prevent people from taking advantage of a second chance.

For example, there have been longstanding restrictions on access to opportunities such as small-business loans.  So, recently, we announced that we are changing the way that we think about who is eligible for small-business loans and have, for the first time, said that folks with a criminal conviction can qualify for small-business loans.

Understand that we issue about $40 billion in small-business loans every year.  The average is about $500,000.  So, making this now available — and these are small business leaders, by the way — making this available, reducing and eliminating that restriction is going to mean a lot in terms of second chances and the opportunity for people to excel.

We have expanded Pell Grants for people who are currently incarcerated, understanding that there are a lot of folks who are inside who do, while they are there, want to enhance their education so that when they come out, they can get a job that allows them a — a quality of life and living that can allow them to take care of themselves and their families.

We have now expanded Pell Grants for the people who are currently incarcerated.  And we have invested nearly a billion dollars to include cities and local governments and nonprofits in money for job training — for increased job training and addiction recovery and reentry support.

And I will say this.  Many Americans who have served their time still face obstacles to their success.  And one way for us to remove some of those other obstacles is by issuing pardons and commutations.  And so, that is the subject of our conversation today.

We have issued, as an administration, with President Biden’s leadership, more pardons and commutations than any recent administration at this point in their term.

For example, on marijuana, we have pardoned all people for federal convictions for simple marijuana possession.  Many of you have heard me say I just don’t think people should have to go to jail for smoking weed.  And these pardons have been issued as an extension of that approach.

We have also addressed unjust sentencing to the extent that we have issued pardons and commutations to address historic disparities in sentencing.

One of the examples that as well-known was the disparity — longstanding disparity in sentencing of crack versus powder cocaine.  It was 100-to-1 disparity, and we have been dealing with that.

In furtherance of this work, to- — yesterday, the President issued a new round of pardons.  And today, we are, then, here to honor some of the recipients of those pardons. 

And — and I will close my comments, as I turn it over to Kim, by saying that, again, I think we know that we can be smarter with how we seek to, one, achieve public safety but also be smarter in terms of how we invest in the people of our country, especially when we do receive and understand the importance of a concept like redemption.

And so, again, I thank everybody for being here today.  And I will now turn it over to Kim Kardashian, who has been a wonderful advocate on this and so many other issues.