A Second Chance

Out today, back behind bars tomorrow: high rates of recidivism remain one of the most troubling aspects of our criminal justice system. Referring to released prisoners, President George W. Bush noted in his State of the Union speech in 2004 that we know from long experience that if they can’t find work, or a home or help, they are much more likely to commit more crimes and return to prison. A study in 2002 by the Justice Department found that 67 percent of those released from state prisons commit new crimes within three years. The causes are spelled out in an important piece of bipartisan legislation now before Congress, the Second Chance Act. Blame for the unacceptably high recidivism rate can be assigned primarily to the minimal preparation given prisoners prior to their release and to the low level of help afforded them after they return to their communities.

The act focuses on four areas: substance abuse, housing, jobs and families. Effective substance abuse treatment is especially important, because over a fourth of all offenses are drug-related. Over 70 percent of recidivists return to prison with drug or alcohol problems, in part because little treatment had been available to them during their earlier incarceration, and little was available to them after their release.


Housing difficulties represent another barrier to re-entry because of laws that deny public housing to former offenders with drug-related convictions. If they are found living with relatives in public housing projects, the whole household can be evicted. A recent report by Human Rights Watch, No Second Chance, focuses on the unfairness of the one-strike policy in public housing. The pending legislation urges the removal of such barriers, calling instead for assistance with post-release housing...through which offenders are provided supervision and services.

Largely because of an increase in drug-related convictions, the number of incarcerated women has been rising even faster than the number of men. Younger women behind bars are often the primary caregivers for their children. With these mothers gone, the damage to family life can be devastating. The number of children with an incarcerated parent jumped 100 percent during the 1990’sfrom 900,000 to approximately two million. The resultant weakening of family ties destabilizes homes still further, putting children at greater risk of eventually being incarcerated themselves.

Employment barriers also limit the ways former offenders can successfully re-enter their communities. The National Institute of Justice reports that 60 percent of former inmates remain jobless a year after their release because of their criminal records and the low literacy levels that hamper them in their search for employment. Instruction about how to apply for Medicaid is another neglected area in pre-release procedures. Yet medical insurance is crucial not only to ensure continuity of services prisoners may have been receiving while incarcerated, but also to reduce the spread of infectious diseases contracted in prison, like tuberculosis, hepatitis and H.I.V. Potentially fatal diseases of this kind, if untreated, can easily spread into the wider community.

The specific measures called for in the Second Chance Act include establishing a National Offender Re-entry Resource Center to provide support and training focused on re-entry, information that could then be disseminated among service providers and community organizations. It would also give grants to states and local governments for supportive mentoring of offenders. In addition, grants would be provided to state and local governments that could be used for family-based treatment centers for parents and their children. A step of this kind could help in assisting children with incarcerated parents and in strengthening the family ties of offenders before and after release.

Writing to members of Congress last summer, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., chair of the Domestic Policy Committee of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, had this to say in support of the act: Too few of those who return to our communities from prison...are prepared for their release or receive any supportive services beyond a bus ticket and a few days spending money. Justice, he concludes, must not only mete out punishment; it must also rehabilitate those who violate the laws. It is this latter element that has been lacking. The Second Chance Act offers an opportunity to remedy an unacceptable situation and should therefore be backed to the fullest. This is especially true now: last month, the Justice Department reported that despite a fall in violent crime and property crime, the number of inmates in state and federal facilities rose over 2 percent last year. Without more help than is now available, many of them will again find themselves behind bars after their eventual release.

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