The Business of Government Hour

 

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Craig Unger interview

Friday, December 6th, 2002 - 20:00
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Craig Unger
Radio show date: 
Sat, 12/07/2002
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Craig Unger
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Arlington, Virginia

Friday, September 20, 2002

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, the co-chair of The Endowment for The Business of Government. We created The Endowment in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. Find out more about The Endowment by visiting us on the web at www.businessofgovernment.org.

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our conversation this morning is with Craig Unger, Federal Detention Trustee in the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Good morning, Craig.

Mr. Unger: Good morning.

Mr. Lawrence: Did I get that title right?

Mr. Unger: Yes, sir.

Mr. Lawrence: Great. Very good. Well, perhaps you could begin by telling us the missions and the responsibilities of the Office of Detention Trustee.

Mr. Unger: Sure. Congress created the Office of Federal Detention Trustee to manage the increasing detainee population, to exercise financial control and to identify and implement efficiencies in the federal detention operations.

The mission of our office is to provide safe, secure and humane detention services on behalf of the Marshals Service, who are holding pre-trial and pre-sentenced prisoners, and also on behalf of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, holding illegal aliens awaiting either adjudication or removal from the country.

In my opinion, the creation of our office was certainly a progressive step for the federal government, as I see really a great opportunity to both assist agencies involved in providing detention, and to generate some cost savings on behalf of taxpayers.

The current agencies, as I said, performing are the Marshals Service and the INS, predominantly. The Federal Bureau of Prisons also plays a supporting role, though their primary mission is the incarceration of federal inmates; that is, the persons that have both been convicted and sentenced for a federal crime. But they also house several thousand prisoners on behalf of the Marshals Service and some aliens on behalf of the INS.

Mr. Lawrence: Is there a natural division of labor, then, to think about who is handling what? The Bureau of Prisons is handling criminals, and you're handling illegal entrants into the country? Did I understand that correctly?

Mr. Unger: Essentially, two types of detainees that I'm responsible for. And we'll distinguish between inmates -- inmates have been convicted, incarcerated. That's the Bureau of Prisons' primary role. The detainees break down further into two elements, and the first being prisoners, those people that have been charged at a pretrial, charged with a crime, and are either awaiting the adjudication of their case, or if they have been convicted, they're awaiting sentencing, and they're under the custody of the United States Marshals Service.

The other half of the detainees that we're responsible for is the illegal aliens in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And those folks are being detained either awaiting adjudication of their administrative case, or their case has been adjudicated, and they've been given final order of removal. So they would be in one of those two categories.

Mr. Lawrence: How many of the detainees fall into your Office's jurisdiction?

Mr. Unger: The total number now is approximately 63,000. That's the average daily population. That may be misleading, in that the length of stay is somewhat different than perhaps an inmate that may be convicted and serving a longer sentence. The average length of stay in the Marshals Service is about 8 months. The average length of stay in the INS is about 37, 38 days. So they're turning over quickly.

Those two agencies took into custody over 315,000 detainees last year. Again, so the number is -- if you ask me what the count is, this week, it's around 60,000-plus. But they take in quite a bit more than that in the process of a year.

Mr. Lawrence: How many facilities do you utilize for detention?

Mr. Unger: Good question. On any given day -- for instance, we've completed a study that the Congress directed us to perform, a needs assessment and a baseline report, and at any given day last year, the Marshals and/or the INS used over 1900 facilities nationwide.

That could be state, it could be local; it could be a private facility or federal. So they had at least one person for at least one night in 1900 facilities. However, as the fiscal year end closed, for instance, as a snapshot, September 30th of last year, there were approximately -- I think it was 756 facilities that we had a person in at that moment.

Mr. Lawrence: Now, you've explained the difference a detainee and the other type of people that are incarcerated. So I'm curious. Are you detained because you're here illegally, or you're awaiting a trial? I'm trying to understand why you would be detained.

Mr. Unger: I presume you're talking about the INS side.

Mr. Lawrence: Right.

Mr. Unger: With the Marshals prisoner, you're obviously indicted and you're charged with a crime, or you've been apprehended briefly by a law enforcement agent, FBI, ATF, what have you, until such time as you're turned over to the custody of the Marshals Service.

On the illegal alien side, the predominant -- again, looking at some of the statistics last year, for instance, about 1.7, or closer to 1.8 million apprehensions occurred, mostly along the border, the Border Patrol. Either picking up or apprehending folks that did not have the proper documents to enter the country.

Now of course we didn't detain that many, but that is the front end entry. I don't know if that answers your question.

Mr. Lawrence: No, it does. I understand there's a trend where the folks that are coming into the United States illegally also have criminal records, that that's become more and more of an issue. Is that true?

Mr. Unger: That is true. We're seeing somewhat of a change in the makeup of the alien population that we're holding. Again, back on the study we have done. Years ago, it was a very small fraction of those folks who entered our country, a lot were simply coming here trying to either seek employment or go to school, or they were fleeing persecution from their host country.

However, as of recently, we have seen the criminal element; those that are aggravated felons that have a previous criminal history now exceed 65 percent of the INS population. So that makeup changes the strategies in the way that we can house those folks on a temporary basis.

Mr. Lawrence: Yes. I was going to ask what kind of management challenges does that present?

Mr. Unger: Well, yesteryear, a lot of the detention facilities were dormitory type, where several people could be held in sort of a -- I'll call it a squad bay, with my military background. However, when you get a little more aggressive potential behavior, it's certainly easier to manage if there are individual cells, or a way to isolate various population trends. Also on your question, I mentioned the Border Patrol on the apprehension end of it.

Of course, there are other ports of entry that INS inspectors and Customs and investigators that are making apprehensions also.

Mr. Lawrence: Your office is relatively new. Could you tell us how it came to be established?

Mr. Unger: For more than a decade, the Department of Justice Inspector General has identified detention as one of the top 10 management challenges in our agency. It's proportionately grown over the years to where it's significantly consuming certainly a lot of resources.

The detention element alone this year, just those folks that I mentioned earlier, those numbers, are approximately 10 percent of the entire DOJ budget. If you add in those incarcerated inmates, those in prison. So you look at detention and incarceration combined, it's over 25 percent, a quarter of the entire DOJ budget.

So it is certainly a program that's big. It has been growing at a pretty phenomenal rate. Again, we looked at, in our study, from '94 to 2001, the data we pulled. And we showed that the population grew from approximately 25,000 to, again, over 60,000 today. That's an increase of 130 percent in, what? A 7-year span.

So just the magnitude of the program is certainly large. And then trying to get some consistencies in the conditions of confinement that the detainees are being held, and trying to perhaps capitalize on some economies of scale, from a holistic Department of Justice standpoint, as opposed to each individual agency acquiring and administering their detention that's based in sort of a stovepipe approach.

Mr. Lawrence: Now, tell us about your specific responsibilities as the Federal Detention Trustee.

Mr. Unger: Well, my responsibilities include -- again, it's new. So first and foremost, there's strategic planning, policy development, and just overseeing the detention operations from a department perspective. I think it's important that we advocate on behalf of the INS and the Marshals. They certainly have unique needs.

Detention is not detention is not detention. There is certainly a separate requirement for an alien that's being held administratively versus a prisoner behind held criminally. So we understand there's unique differences in those populations.

But there's also I think some opportunities to capitalize on some economies of scale on the similarities, where we perhaps could both elevate the quality of care, perhaps the proximity to the courthouse, or the port of entry. And then of course trying to save some dollars.

My specific responsibilities, tasks that we're going to be undertaking, including administering, as I mentioned earlier, these almost 1900 interagency agreements and contracts that we have with detention providers nationwide, reviewing existing detention practices and developing perhaps some alternatives that will improve efficiency and be cost-effective, and developing and implementing strategies to deal with some hotspots and crisis locations, and particular spots in the country that we perhaps can zoom in on and provide immediate relief to those front-end law enforcement agencies that have quite a burden every day just trying to find a couple more beds for those people that have been apprehended that day.

And we're also developing and implementing, monitoring a compliance program that we've worked with that PricewaterhouseCoopers had developed earlier with the department prior to my office coming into existence. And we've assumed that role of trying to put some detention standards, some core standards and policies and procedures in effect that we can monitor.

And then finally, there's forecasting the detention needs in the future, that we can be prepared to have beds where we need them, when we need them, and hopefully at an affordable price on behalf of all the law enforcement agencies.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a good stopping point. We've got to go to a break. Come back with us after the break as we continue our conversation about management with Craig Unger of the Department of Justice.

This is The Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and today's conversation is with Craig Unger. Craig is the Federal Detention Trustee in the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Well, Craig, at the end of our last segment, you described your responsibility. And I'm curious about how big your team is, and who's on your team in terms of the composition of their skills.

Mr. Unger: Well, we're small at the moment. We're lean, and again, a new agency. And I might add that while we're new, this function is not new. It's been performed for many, many years by the agencies that I mentioned earlier, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons.

Congress, in establishing our office, gave us a handful of positions -- six -- and we got started last year, performing the study, and beginning the activation of the office. There is a request in this year's FY03 budget proposal for a dozen more positions. But those are the infrastructure to get the office off the ground.

The staff that we envision and propose to maintain the office will be either detailed or reassigned, or from within those components that are currently performing. Again, we're not interested in creating another layer of bureaucracy. We're looking at eliminating duplicity and consolidating the services so we can hopefully, be more consistent, and hopefully contain some costs.

Mr. Lawrence: What type skills will your team have?

Mr. Unger: As you expect in any agency, from the upfront projections to statisticians, to the budget, both formulation and execution, from a procurement standpoint of negotiating and acquiring contracts, from a compliance review, QA/QC folks for administering the contracts. Pretty much a myriad of all the disciplines you would expect in any organization.

Mr. Lawrence: Good old-fashioned management stuff?

Mr. Unger: Yes.

Mr. Lawrence: Tell us about your career. How did you get here?

Mr. Unger: My federal civil service career spans approximately 28 years, beginning with my tour of duty in the United States Marine Corps, and then continuing with the Federal Bureau of Prisons for nearly 24 years, and then also a brief tour of duty with the Department of Justice Inspector General's office as a special agent. And then finally with my position as the Federal Detention Trustee.

Mr. Lawrence: How were you drawn to this subject area?

Mr. Unger: Good question. My background is actually accounting and finance MBA. I got into the Corrections as an entry level, working actually in a commissary, a canteen. And the Bureau's just an extraordinary organization to work for, and very family-oriented, very career-oriented. And they presented me with several opportunities, and I sort of had an excellent promotion potential [situations], and elevated throughout the years, relocated on several occasions at some of their field institutions, regional office, and ended up in their headquarters.

Mr. Lawrence: When you look back on your career, is there any one job or series of jobs that best prepared to become the trustee?

Mr. Unger: I would say, other than parenting preparing me for management, it would be perhaps the special agent in the DOJ's Inspector General's office, and being trained for some of the interviews and the cases that we had there were quite an eye-opener for me.

Mr. Lawrence: In terms of expanding your knowledge of the subject area, or in terms of developing management skills?

Mr. Unger: I would say in terms of management skills, and just seeing that I had been exposed mostly to all of the good and wonderful things of working in organizations. You get to see some not-so-good things when you're working on, again, cases some balance and perspective that you need to be prepared to deal with all those.

Mr. Lawrence: That's interesting. Well, let's shift gears a little bit, because I understand your office is doing some very interesting things. And I'm curious to know about some of your plans.

I understand you're planning to create a clearinghouse for detention space. Could you tell us about this project?

Mr. Unger: Yes. I should back up and say Congress did support us to initiate a national repository; a database, if you will, on the detention operations within the federal sector. And the basic premise of the project is quite simple; it's to develop an online system that can be used by federal law enforcement officers to identify beds.

For example, if an FBI agent makes an arrest and needs to detain a suspect, the clearinghouse will be a tool that he could -- we're looking at a web base that he can log on to -- and perhaps in a 50-mile radius, or close to the apprehension point or wherever it's going to be adjudicated -- and find a detention space. And without making numerous calls and spending a lot of resources, and perhaps locating where we might have to move him a second time. So that's the basic premise of the system.

Mr. Lawrence: So it is an application of technology to replace what appears to be a very manual process, the process of calling and looking and searching.

Mr. Unger: That's correct. Again, I've spent several days and nights in my brief time in this job in the field, learning, observing from the folks that are performing the day-to-day operations of detention, and the various tasks they have to perform.

It's not unusual, and in some districts, they're making 30, 40 calls a day, every day, trying to just find a few more beds that we need to hold people -- temporarily -- and sometimes they'll call again in the afternoon to see if bed space has been freed up. And it just seems to me, with all of the technology out there, from booking an aircraft flight or a hotel room, that we ought to be able to automate and help these folks make decisions, hopefully on sound business. Perhaps we'll put them where there are services we need, or where we can have a better per diem rate. So that would be the fundamental need for the system.

Mr. Lawrence: Another project underway in your office is the establishment of two regional detention pilot projects. Could you tell us about these programs?

Mr. Unger: In our enabling legislation -- Congress directed us to perform a few tasks. I mentioned one earlier, perform the baseline report and needs assessment. They also asked us to identify a couple of hotspots, a couple of crisis locations throughout the country that perhaps we could develop some sound business process improvements, and go in on sort of a pilot basis and implement some of these and see if we could make a difference.

And again, both being more efficient and more consistent, and contain costs. So based on that, we have proposed in the Midwest, the Chicago area, and we have proposed along the Southwest border, the El Paso-Las Cruces area, of sort of drilling down into those particular districts, and doing a real in-depth needs assessment of who they have now, where they're holding them, what's the average length of stay, what are the transportation costs, what are the medical costs, and then trying to do a projection of what their needs are going to be, and see if we can, become more efficient.

Mr. Lawrence: Have there been any outcomes of these pilots so far?

Mr. Unger: No, we're just in the proposed stages of developing our plans, and gathering information from those folks in the field. My management by the seat of the pants over the years has taught me that people on the front line performing every day most generally have the solutions to their problems. So we're trying to spend quite a bit of time with those people at those districts. And I'm talking about not just the INS and Marshals, but bringing in the FBI, ATF, Secret Service, the U.S. Attorneys, the courts, the Immigration Review side of the house. And the Customs. Anybody that's involved in the pipeline of detention, and both the criminal justice and the administrative side of the house, and getting their input on identifying first what the problem is.

We want to make sure whatever we're going to try to fix, we can at least concur and agree to what's causing, what are the drivers for the magnitude of the detention needs in those particular districts. So they're pretty much still in their infant development stage.

Mr. Lawrence: You just listed so many organizations that are involved in detention. What are the management tools you use to coordinate, and extract information, and work in different parts of the country and across these different groups?

Mr. Unger: Well, the first is the telephone, and spending a lot of time on airplanes. But I believe wholeheartedly in talking to people face-to-face, observing firsthand the processes that are currently ongoing in all those components. And again, in the context of detention, and seeing if there is some area that's overlap, or that is duplicative that we can perhaps provide some assistance with.

But, I feel at my level, my job is to certainly network, to reach out to those folks, share information and resources, and to listen to them.

Mr. Lawrence: The facilities that are used for detention are located all over the country. What are the requirements for a facility to be considered for use?

Mr. Unger: First of all, again, as I said earlier, we're looking for facilities that are safe, secure, and humane. So if a jurisdiction, a local sheriff has excess beds that he would like to provide a service on behalf of the Marshals or INS -- they would identify that need to us. Of course, we would perform a pre-occupancy inspection to ensure � the Department of Justice has specific core standards that we developed that were going to enforce on any of the providers, whether it be state, local or private or federal.

So we would do a pre-occupancy inspection to ensure that those needs were met. We would also negotiate, hopefully, a favorable rate. And then we would, once we began using that facility, we would do on at least an annual basis, a pretty in-depth inspection and compliance check.

Mr. Lawrence: Great. We've got to stop for a break. Rejoin us after the break as we continue our conversation about management with Craig Unger of the Department of Justice.

This is The Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and today's conversation is with Craig Unger. Craig is the Federal Detention Trustee in the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Craig, your appointment came 2 weeks after September 11, 2001, or 9/11, as we know it as. What challenges did this timing present?

Mr. Unger: Interesting, to say the least. Upon assuming office, you know, I was immediately involved, as was most of the DOJ staff, in the counterterrorism-related activities. The focus of the department was rightfully on the counterterrorism efforts, and of course in the context of detention, ensuring that we had beds where we needed them when we needed them was the role I was very busy trying to support those folks.

At the same time, I was very busy learning the functions of my new job, trying to assist in bringing this office online. The overall impact of the Federal Detention Trustee's office, I would say, was probably a delay in staffing my office, and the ability to again get some traction and get started on the Congressional directives that we had mentioned earlier.

But however, it's certainly understandable given the scope of the urgency that was related to the terrorist attacks.

Mr. Lawrence: What type of hours did you keep? You described so many things, I found it hard to believe the days ever ended.

Mr. Unger: Well, I am fortunate. I have the MARC train that -- I commute from out west several miles. And I was taking -- I was getting up about 4:30, taking the earliest train in in the morning, and there's one that leaves at 7:30, I believe it is. It gets me home after 9:00 in the evening.

So, I only missed that train once. And then my wife picked me up.

Mr. Lawrence: Your office's budget, as I understand it, has increased dramatically for FY03, from, if I'm reading this right, a million dollars to over 1.3 billion. So tell me if I got that correct. And how do you go about thinking about the budget and spending this kind of money?

Mr. Unger: Those numbers are correct. It's quite a substantial undertaking that we're about to embark upon. What to spend the money on is fairly easy. It's the per diem and the medical costs and transportation of the more than 300,000 federal detainees that we're taking into custody annually.

The strategic part is a bit more difficult. Again, currently, because of the daily needs of Marshals and INS, they are at times occupying any and all bed space that's available to them. Regardless, in some cases, of whether it's the most efficient or cost-effective, they're simply trying to meet the needs of short-term demand. So our office, as we assume responsibility, is going to try to take a more long-term approach towards exploring a variety of solutions to accommodate their needs.

Again, as I had mentioned a little bit earlier, perhaps economies of scale, instead of paying sort of what the market will bear on the spot. An example probably would be overly simplistic, but buying 8 individual pints of milk from a convenience store is certainly going to be more expensive than buying a gallon of milk at a supermarket.

Mr. Lawrence: Currently, as I understand it, you have management and funding control over detention space, but no direct control over the personnel. What management challenges does that present? I mean, how do you get people to listen to you, for example?

Mr. Unger: Actually, I would say having authority over the appropriations is certainly a significant first step, and sufficient to exercise de facto control. Without control of the appropriations, we would certainly be quite limited in our ability to effect change in the status quo.

That being said, nonetheless, I believe the field staff that I have come into contact with are very receptive in trying to work with, again, either advancing technologies or some solutions to the burden that has been placed upon them with this significant growth, year after year.

So it will, eventually, as I mentioned earlier, hopefully, there will be some additional detailees or reassignments to our office, and to where we're ready to build a coalition to hopefully win people over.

Mr. Lawrence: One of the big issues that comes up often when we talk to people is the challenges of working with other federal government agencies. And I'm curious about your relationship with the Marshals, the INS, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and how you go about making it work.

Mr. Unger: Over the course of the last year, we've certainly strived very hard to include those three components in all aspects of planning and decisionmakings. And this goes from focus group sessions we've put together to work details, to field travel. I think keeping the lines of communication open has led to a great learning experience on behalf of me and my staff. And I hope those agencies feel similarly.

In implementing these pilots, we're going to need multiple levels of participation through the whole process. And hopefully, we'll be achieving some success stories along the way, and we'll further open the dialogue between those components.

But it's been a challenge. Certainly, any time we're trying to change the status quo, I think you can expect to be looked at as adversarial or confrontational. But we've certainly tried very, very hard to better understand what the issues in the daily items that they're confronted with before we just try to come in and effect change.

Mr. Lawrence: Tell us about the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System.

Mr. Unger: Well, JPATS, as it's known, is a detainee transport system that moves detainees throughout the United States, as well as conducting several international flights. Like a typical airline, JPATS is a hub and spoke network of routes used to transport detainees all over the nation.

JPATS conducts the repatriation flights to various foreign countries to remove illegal aliens. It's quite an organization. In '95, JPATS was actually born out of a merger between the United States Marshals Services Air Operations Division and the INS Air Transport branch. And as a result of the merger, the DOJ agencies combined their air fleet, which are used to move literally thousands of prisoners and aliens nationwide, on behalf of the Marshals Service, BOP, and INS, and on occasion, the military, state and local governments.

Mr. Lawrence: How big? Can you give us an order of magnitude of how big this operation is?

Mr. Unger: Last year, JPATS transported more than 152,000 prisoners. And on a weekly basis, we're moving -- again, several thousand is not unusual. So the fleet of aircraft includes everything from wide-body jets to fixed-wing prop airplanes.

Mr. Lawrence: And it's so famous it even had a movie, right? This is ConAir you've described. Is that -

Mr. Unger: I saw the movie, and I would not make too many comparisons.

Mr. Lawrence: But let me ask a more serious question about the management challenges of operating an airline in such a high security environment. How does that play out?

Mr. Unger: Well, it is a challenge. And JPATS has always operated in a high security environment. Again, moving literally thousands of prisoners each and every week requires extraordinary security precautions and careful coordination. Ground security is provided by Deputy U.S. Marshals, by Bureau of Prisons Correctional Officers, and INS, both detention enforcement officers and deportation officers, at each and every airport hub and transfer point.

Certainly being vigilant to escape attempts as well as potential assaults from the outside is of constant concern, both in the air and on the tarmac.

Mr. Lawrence: Are these prime opportunities to escape? I just wouldn't have guessed these are the places you do that, during the transportation.

Mr. Unger: Well, I would certainly agree it's an opportunity. With the precautions that I've witnessed, I have personally participated in, I think it was seven now JPATS flights. And the planning, both from the scheduling to the pre-flight crew, to the actual performance of the transport is pretty remarkable, with highly trained and professional staff. And it's not advertised a lot.

In fact, you probably may have seen one or been sitting by one in any one of the major airports, and not even known it. So again, it's certainly a concern and a challenge, but a very, very effective and professional organization.

Mr. Lawrence: Tell us about some of the other management challenges your office is facing.

Mr. Unger: I believe probably the major challenge we touched on a little earlier was getting the components to act and think as one, again in the context of detention requirements.

Currently, despite all of those -- INS, Marshals, BOP, being part of the Department of Justice, there are organizational barriers that sort of prevent us from being fully synergized, again, in the context of detention operations.

As the number of federal detainees has increased over the last several years, in some instances, agencies have had no choice but just simply to obtain space wherever and whenever it becomes available, and sometimes competing with one another for the same beds in a particular local area.

So we certainly would love to get to the point where we speak as one voice, and can both assist those agencies in enhancing the quality of care, the proximity to the courthouse or to the port of entry that they're needed. And again, also containing costs on behalf of the taxpayer.

Mr. Lawrence: What are some of the barriers that prevent that kind of coordination from happening you described?

Mr. Unger: Well, I just think force of habit. Any change in human behavior is somewhat difficult to overcome. And I'm certainly aware that anything we want to try to implement or gather, where I'm in someone else's turf and I try to be very sensitive to that, at the same time, because we're not necessarily trying to point out inefficiencies or problems, there are certainly a lot of positive, incredible performances that are going on right now that I'm extremely proud of as a citizen to see how a few people in some -- these remote districts are really just busting their tails trying to keep the system running and to get detainees where they need to be at the right time.

And so sometimes, coming in, it does appear that I'm Monday morning quarterbacking and second-guessing. So I just think I need to redouble my efforts and try to be seen as an advocate on their behalf, as opposed to a critic.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a good stopping point. We've got to go to a break. Come back with us in a few minutes as we continue discussing management with Craig Unger of the Department of Justice.

This is The Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and today's conversation is with Craig Unger. Craig is the Federal Detention Trustee in the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Well, Craig, you've told us about your staff's plans to grow over the next 2 years. I'd be interested in hearing about those, again, in the sense that what training opportunities are going to be offered them as you look out?

Mr. Unger: Well, as we discussed earlier, in Fiscal Year '03, we've requested additional positions as part of our base. In addition, there are proposals to detail folks from the other components to our component.

And one of our goals is to streamline and manage detention resources, so that we can hopefully use our resources in the most prudent manner for our agency. Predicting the impact of 9/11 and what growth that might have on our agency is still a bit difficult at this time. Training is certainly a big issue for me personally; in my office to date we've hired several personnel, where some of them have come from BOP and INS, and they are knowledgeable about detention and incarceration issues.

The focus groups that we've conducted have included folks from those staff. And as we grow, formal training programs will be necessary to be developed, perhaps in the areas of detainee management, contracting, and administering the intergovernmental agreements and contracts.

So there is going to be a whole, I would say, program to be developed, from entry level to intermediate to advanced sound detention policies and procedures for us to embark upon. We could all use additional training to improve our problem-solving skills, no question. However, as we had discussed earlier, too, my initial focus is going to be to try to identify technology-driven solutions for tasks that currently command a substantial amount of resources, and try to train staff to use those advanced technologies.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, it was funny. I was afraid you were going to omit technology, but you mentioned it at the end. Because I had a hard time imagining how to use technology to do the base of your work. You'll have technology, I imagine, around the administration and the care, much like the reservation system. But it's always going to be moving people.

Mr. Unger: That's correct. I mean, having a real-time -- since we have such a dynamic fluid population revolving through the doors of apprehensions, adjudication, and removals -- having a real-time database to know how many we have, where we have them, average length of stay, how much it costs.

And as it is now, those systems are not integrated to where, from, a Department of Justice standpoint, that we can not only identify but then project what our future needs are going to be.

Mr. Lawrence: Looking back over your first year as the Federal Detention Trustee, what are your lessons learned?

Mr. Unger: Well, there's certainly been many lessons learned over the last year. And again, as I mentioned at the end of the prior segment, it's certainly amazing to see how existing field personnel, law enforcement, are coping with the daily detention needs. And witnessing firsthand has certainly been an invaluable lesson to me. To participate in several of the JPATS flights, to walk through detention facilities and to talk to people performing day-in, day-out was certainly an eye-opener for me, and a great opportunity.

Through this process, I began to recognize the ways in which our office can provide some leadership, and help reinforce the need for a consolidated approach to long-term strategies to -- again, ensuring we have the adequate beds where we need them, when we need them. But that meet safe, secure, humane standards, again, at an affordable, fair and reasonable price.

Another lesson learned was to keep moving forward despite the obstacles. There's certainly been many times I felt that we were somewhat powerless to implement change. After all, with such a small handful of people, trying to implement change in such large, established agencies can get the dauber down. And so, sort of an objective assessment is really a tool to just sort of keep moving forward, get momentum, and trying to describe a problem that we were identifying. Certainly not intended to assign blame, but just trying to see if we can identify efficiencies, and agree upon solutions. I think that networking is necessary and vital to implementing long-term change and acceptance.

Mr. Lawrence: I think a lot of people feel like something you just said, that it's hard to be such a small group of people and implement change in such a large organization. And you said it's important to have objective assessments and to kind of keep things going. What did you mean by that?

Mr. Unger: It seems like in any bureaucracy I've ever worked, there are certain processes and planning and approvals, that it's easy to get distracted from the primary reason that you're in existence, and what you're trying to perform. And I would say sometimes it's trying to zoom back and look at the issue from 30,000 feet.

And we may have jumped offsides, in comparing a football analogy here. But if we're advancing the ball in the direction we're trying to go, we need to acknowledge that once in a while, and to sort of, again, as the leadership that I'm trying to provide to this new organization is to encourage people to think outside the box, to challenge the ways and the methods that we've done things in the past, and feel safe in doing that.

Mr. Lawrence: How will you measure the success of the office?

Mr. Unger: The official answer is the Government Performance Results Act, GPRA, as it's known, requires that federal agencies identify all these plans and set goals and performance measures towards achieving those goals. And there's a variety of performance measures that the department has established over the years on evaluating detention services.

Historically, we've identified jail day costs and the per capita and transportation and some of the other measures that you would imagine any agency would have. In our Congressional report, we identified several others. For example, the adoption and implementation of uniform detention standards. Some of these aren't easily quantified. They're more quality-based, and I think they're important that we have a minimum level of safe, secure, humane services out there that we're measuring against, as opposed to just perhaps where we could put someone in a cheaper bed.

And measuring the proximity to the court -- how efficient are we? If we get 300 miles from the courthouse and saving money, but we have to transport people back and forth, or attorneys have to go see their client or material witnesses. So trying to keep that in perspective and balance I think will certainly be an area that we should measure.

Perhaps soft detention. Sometimes there's alternative sanctions to making sure, since we only have a finite number of beds, that we get the right people occupying those beds. Maybe we could expand the use of videoconferencing for certain proceedings or facilitating the court system, or attorney-client visits. Or we could look at electronic monitoring, home confinement. Some of the technological advances in GPS systems that we may not have had the opportunities to use over the years.

But I guess the ultimate way that I'll measure success is my hope that as a result of our efforts, that the stakeholders and observers, including on the Hill, will no longer need to look at detention and use the words "crisis" and "emergency" to describe the state of federal detention.

Mr. Lawrence: What's your vision for the office, say, for the next 5 years?

Mr. Unger: I would say, as a result of the recent law enforcement initiatives and improvements in law enforcement technology, first of all, just looking at the magnitude. I don't think -- it's probably not unrealistic to think (again, our average daily population is over 60,000 today, probably closer to 63,000) and 5 years out is what the question you ask. It probably is not, again unrealistic to think that our average daily population could be over 100,000. That is a significant amount of detainees to be responsible for on an ongoing basis. Over the next 5 years, I'd like to see our office achieve true consolidation of detention services from an operational standpoint. And this means of course federal detention under one agency, and the success factors I described earlier are realized.

Again, I also expect technology to play a larger role in our future.

Mr. Lawrence: It was very interesting when you said you could see the number of detainees growing to something like 100,000. I guess it's kind of na�ve, but do you ever imagine scenarios where that number will go down, or may even go to zero?

Mr. Unger: Well, looking in the state-incarcerated, again, these are convicted and sentenced inmates, we've seen drops in numerous states in their populations. So one would certainly hope from a society, we would gravitate towards there eventually.

Post-9/11, we actually saw the numbers flatten or go down. But that was a temporary aberration. They're back up now to pre-9/11 levels and growing. So I don't know. It would be speculative to answer your question on that.

Mr. Lawrence: You've had a long career, and I'm curious. What advice would you give to a young person interested in a career in public service?

Mr. Unger: Well, I think to serve our country is a true honor. Government service is a rewarding experience, and there's ample opportunity for young people to make substantial contributions for the greater good.

Growing up in rural West Virginia, I learned long ago that when one takes a job, we get compensated in two ways. First, of course, our salary. And secondly, we're paid by experience. My advice would be take the experience every time. The salary will catch up down the road.

Like me, most of my staff started at the entry level in our agencies at pretty low on the GS scale. And through some hard knocks and hard work and opportunities, we've had some excellent opportunities, and again, become experts in the various fields. So my advice to young people would be to seriously consider a career in government service.

Mr. Lawrence: Craig, I'm afraid we're out of time. Thank you so much for joining me this morning.

Mr. Unger: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

Mr. Lawrence: Great. Thank you. This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Craig Unger of the Department of Justice.

Be sure and visit us on the web at www.businessofgovernment.org. There, you can learn more about our programs, and you can get a transcript of today's conversation. Again, that's www.businessofgovernment.org.

This is Paul Lawrence. See you next week.

Craig Unger interview
12/07/2002
Craig Unger

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