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Second Chance Act: Funding a Tool for Criminal Justice Reform

Considering their cost and wide allocation, grant programs have a significant effect on criminal justice and corrections policy nationwide. Congress and the DOJ should look at these grant programs as a valuable tool for reform.

February 9, 2014

The Brennan Center has described how the Second Chance Reauthorization Act, introduced last November, could be a valuable step toward repairing our broken criminal justice system – and reducing the negative impact of mass incarceration. In particular, the Act focuses on improving the outcomes for those returning from prison to their communities after release. Since the U.S. releases 700,000 prisoners a year and 95 percent of state inmates will ultimately return to their communities, ensuring an effective system is in place to prevent their return to prison must be a priority. 

The corrections field has made tremendous progress in this area in recent years. Decades ago, the words ‘corrections’ and ‘reentry’ were rarely heard side by side. Now, many corrections supervisors take the perspective that reentry begins on an inmate’s first day behind bars. Without effective reentry programs, a former prisoner is far more likely to end up back in jail, at immense cost to taxpayers and corrections officials already scrambling to slow pervasive prison overcrowding.

One way the Second Chance Act works is by allowing the Justice Department to fund related grant programs. In 2013, that included more than 100 grants totaling over $62 million. Since the prior Second Chance Act was passed five years ago, it has awarded more than 600 grants to government agencies and nonprofit groups.

Considering their cost and wide allocation, grant programs have a significant effect on criminal justice and corrections policy nationwide. Congress and the DOJ should look at these grant programs as a valuable tool for reform. Many of these grants are already “Success-Oriented.” In other words, they prioritize funding programs with a proven record of reducing recidivism – such as post-release employment planning, connecting former prisoners to employers in the local community, and tracking and monitoring employment outcomes.  

In this mould, criminal justice policymakers should continue aligning their funding with smart public policy goals and the programs that are proven to achieve them. For corrections, this Success-Oriented Funding approach should focus on reducing recidivism — and as a result, reducing crime and unnecessary incarceration. 

In 2012, Second Chance Act grant programs began providing priority consideration to agencies proposing a Pay for Success model, a form of Success Oriented Funding where performance risk is transferred to philanthropic funders to improve social outcomes, allowing more effective allocation of scarce public-sector resources. According to the Justice Department, “Pay for Success represents a new way to achieve positive outcomes for the criminal justice population with external financing and at a lower risk and cost to governments.” Applicants must detail three things: specify recidivism goals for the target population; assign a monetary value for achievement of the desired recidivism outcome; and describe the evaluation’s methodology. 

The Justice Department already awarded Second Chance Act funds to a few jurisdictions. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio they are using these funds to utilize the Pay for Success model, which utilizes external funding to support the initiative and relies on government support only if the initiative demonstrates positive results. The funds support an adult reentry demonstration project targeting individuals who have been assessed as moderate‐ to high‐risk for re-offending, including those with a history of mental illness, gang involvement and/or substance abuse.

This funding model holds grant recipients accountable for how they spend taxpayer money, while encouraging investment in innovative recidivism-reduction programs. Ultimately, if a program works, it will continue receiving funding.  If it doesn’t, taxpayers won’t be left holding the bill. But Success-Oriented Funding can apply much more broadly – beyond private financing, beyond these individual programs, and beyond corrections.

The Justice Department’s commitment to innovative, pay for success models under the Second Chance Act Grant is commendable. In fact, applicants are encouraged to apply with an intermediary organization that can help a government entity make sense of everything, gain partnerships, secure capital, and implement evidence-based practices for those to be served in the project. The DOJ should expand its use of Success-Oriented funding across the criminal justice system, to encourage public policies that reduce unnecessary incarceration while improving public safety.