Denise O’Donnell has a rare combination of skills as a senior executive leader, policymaker, lawyer, prosecutor and professional social worker. She has served with distinction in a number of senior executive positions in the criminal justice field at the federal, state and local levels. Until January 2017, Ms. O’Donnell served as the Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) at the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, during the Obama Administration, where she provided federal leadership for unprecedented justice system reform and reentry efforts. She focused national attention on emerging issues such as data-driven bipartisan criminal justice reform at the state and local level, the implementation of evidence-based re-entry programs, the importance of building trust between law enforcement and communities, the need for prison reform in restrictive housing and the disparate impact of fees & fines on poor communities. Her recent accomplishments include launching BJA’s “Smart Suite” of nine criminal justice grant programs that implement research-practitioner partnerships to advance the knowledge of what works in policing, prosecution, public defense, community corrections, pre-trial, re-entry, opioid use disorders, and building community efficacy. Under her leadership, BJA has become a national leader in advancing data-driven, evidence-based criminal justice programs and strategies.
Ms. O’Donnell previously served as Deputy Secretary for Public Safety for two New York governors, managing a portfolio of eleven criminal justice and homeland security agencies with a combined budget of $4.7 billion and a work force of 42,000 employees. She also served as Commissioner of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, and as Chair of the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform and Chair of the New York State Forensic Science Commission.
Ms. O’Donnell graduated summa cum laude from SUNY at Buffalo Law School. While in law school, she worked as a legal assistant to the plaintiffs in the landmark Buffalo School Desegregation case. After graduating, she joined the United States Attorney’s Office in Western New York, where she worked her way up from career Assistant United States Attorney to serve as the presidentially appointed United States Attorney, overseeing nationally significant investigations and cases. She served as Vice-Chair of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee in Washington D.C under Attorney General Janet Reno.
Ms. O’Donnell brings a strong policy, research, planning and implementation background to her criminal justice work, and holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work with experience in community mental health, substance use disorders, and community planning. She is Founder and Director of Leadership for Justice Innovation LLC, and is a frequent speaker, facilitator and trainer in criminal justice policy, research and reform.