Congress Can't Afford a Step Backwards on Incarceration

Today Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rob Portman (R-OH) took a bipartisan step toward maintaining a vital criminal justice program with their Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2013.

November 20, 2013
Congress Second Chance Act

Today Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rob Portman (R-OH) took a bipartisan step toward maintaining a vital criminal justice program. Their Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2013 would reauthorize a law originally signed by President George W. Bush in April 2008 that was the first of its kind to focus on improving outcomes for people returning to their communities after incarceration.

The Second Chance Act achieved its goal of reducing recidivism. A study by the Council of State Governments highlights a number of states that, after receiving Second Chance funding, experienced a drop in the rate at which ex-offenders returned to jail. Texas and Ohio saw reductions of 11 percent, while Kansas and Michigan saw an 18 percent drop.

Measures like this that reduce recidivism ultimately lessen the financial burden on local governments and correctional systems. This allows dollars to instead go toward education, infrastructure, and effective public safety programs – including those that keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place. The second chance grants encourage recipients to develop and implement innovative strategies to address the reentry challenges that individuals and communities face. The legislation also bolsters grants to programs that assist our most vulnerable communities: those with histories of substance abuse, homelessness and mental illness.

It’s no secret that our criminal justice system needs comprehensive reform. Our incarcerated population, and the cost of housing it, is unsustainable: over 2.2 million individuals are currently incarcerated and millions more circle through local jails each year. Nearly 95 percent of offenders will eventually return to their communities. Do we want them to be productive members of society? Do we want them to work, pay taxes, and participate in their local communities?  Surely we do. Therefore, we need to ensure they have the tools and services needed to successfully reenter society.  

The Second Chance Act funds programs that:

  1. Enhance public safety in our communities. The Act authorizes grants to vital programs that help former prisoners gain employment and stable housing, as well as access to counseling and other support systems critical to successful reentry.
  2. Promote efficient spending. By providing funding to state and local governments and community organizations, the Second Chance Act focuses limited resources squarely on providing services for those moderate and high-risk ex-offenders who are most likely to need the assistance.
  3. Bolster local economies. Providing ex-offenders avenues to employment broadly benefits their entire community. Ex-offenders who enter the workforce after being released are less likely to engage in criminal behavior, and contribute to their local economy as taxpayers.

Formerly incarcerated individuals face unique challenges when reentering society. Those with criminal records are far more likely to suffer from substance abuse and mental illness. They often have lower education achievement levels and lack workplace experience, making obtaining employment very challenging for this population. The Second Chance helps these very people who are most at risk of returning to jail.  In order to combat the continued growth in our incarcerated population, it is imperative that Congress both reauthorize this law and ensure that it receives the necessary federal funding.

(Photo: Flickr)