Tuesday, December 26, 2006
From NYTimes.com: Not too long ago, you could tell whether an election was under way by watching prime-time television and counting the number of ominous recitatives about prisoners and ex-prisoners in the commercials. This fall, however, the seven million Americans who are in the custody of the state — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — did not loom large on nightly TV; in fact, as has been the case for nearly a decade, they barely received any notice at all. Prisoners are no longer the charged political symbols and campaign-season scapegoats they once were.
This may be due to a change of heart bythe Republican Party. A sign of this change of heart is the fact that the former Republican-controlled Congress came tantalizingly close to passing the Second Chance Act, a bill that focuses not on how to “lock them up” but on how to let them out. The bill may become law soon, if Democrats continue to welcome the new conservative interest in rehabilitation.
By some measures, the Second Chance Act is a small bill. It authorizes less than $100 million over two years to address a significant problem: about 700,000 ex-offenders (the population of a good-size American city) will leave prison in 2007 — and two-thirds of them are likely to be rearrested within three years. The bill would provide states with grants to develop model programs for prisoners returning to society. Those states that accept the grants will be asked to re-examine any laws and regulations that make it unreasonably difficult for ex-offenders to reintegrate themselves into their communities — the classic example is the ban on allowing felons to receive a barber’s license. The bill also provides money to faith-based organizations and other nonprofits for prisoner-mentoring programs. Finally, it requires states to measure how well their programs achieve the bill’s main goal: reducing the rate of recidivism among recently released prisoners.
No one expects the Second Chance Act to solve the prisoner-re-entry problem overnight. The bill’s authors are probably too confident that drug treatment, education and housing assistance can reduce recidivism on their own. Such services, many criminologists say, are effective only when paired with the tight supervision of ex-offenders. Some researchers point to the “broken windows” response to crime and suggest trying a similar approach with prisoner re-entry: quickly punish any small violations of the terms of a prisoner’s release with graduated sanctions while returning ex-offenders to prison only for new crimes, not for technical parole violations like missing a meeting with a probation officer. The Second Chance Act does nothing to support this sort of approach.
Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]