- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

One former federal prisoner hopes his efforts will help thousands of other ex-offenders lead healthy, law-abiding lives when they re-enter society after serving their prison terms.

This year, more than 600,000 inmates will be released from America’s prisons on probation or parole. According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, two-thirds of those released will commit a crime and be arrested again within three years of their release.

Former federal prisoner Pat Nolan is working toward lower recidivism rates and to reform the criminal-justice system as the president of Justice Fellowship. The fellowship is the public-policy arm of Prison Fellowship Ministries, whichworks with churches across the country to minister to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.

“I got to see both sides of the criminal-justice system,” Mr. Nolan said. “I saw how little was being done for the inmates to return to the community.”

Formerly a Republican leader of the California state Assembly, Mr. Nolan was convicted of racketeering after he received an illegal campaign contribution in an FBI sting.

The husband and father of three pleaded guilty in 1994 to one count of racketeering. He served 25 months in federal prison and four months in a halfway house.

After being released in 1996, Mr. Nolan struggled to adjust to life outside the prison walls.

“While you’re in prison, all control is taken away from you,” Mr. Nolan said. Outside prison, he found he had trouble making choices as simple as ordering lunch off a restaurant menu.

“For two years, I hadn’t made a choice of what to eat,” he said.

Mr. Nolan said issues of control are not the only problems that ex-offenders face after they are released. He said many have difficulty readjusting to changes in society and technology advancements that occurred during their incarceration. Others lack a strong moral framework that could help them stay away from crime.

“They haven’t been given a code of conduct of what’s right and wrong,” said Mr. Nolan, whose new book, “When Prisoners Return,” advocates a faith-based approach to help prevent recidivism. “If we are going to break the cycle, we have to give them a new code to base their decisions.”

In hopes of reducing recidivism rates, Mr. Nolan helped develop the Second Chance Act of 2004. The legislation was introduced June 23 by Rep. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, along with co-sponsors Rep. Danny K. Davis, Illinois Democrat; Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican; and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Ohio Democrat.

“We have this huge social problem that is not getting enough attention,” a spokesman for Mr. Portman said. “If people are not committing so many crimes, it will make our communities safer.”

“This bill provides, as a beginning, the essential ingredients necessary to assure public safety,” Mrs. Jones said. “It will help begin the process of breaking down barriers to successful re-entry and allow ex-offenders and their families the tools necessary to break the cycle of criminality.”

Mr. Portman researched and consulted with about 60 organizations when creating the bill, but Justice Fellowship and Prison Fellowship Ministries were two of the main consultants. Since its introduction, the legislation has drawn bipartisan support from Congress and private organizations.

“It’s been a real sign of a healthy political system, where people can set aside political differences and work together on this bill,” Mr. Nolan said.

The bill would allocate about $112 million toward re-entry programs, including job training, education, housing and substance-abuse and mental-health services. It also will create the National Offender Re-entry Resource Center, which will collect and disseminate information for states, local governments and other organizations on the best practices for offender re-entry.

Supporters of the legislation say the effect of high recidivism rates extends beyond ex-offenders. The average cost of incarcerating a prisoner is $22,650 per year. Some states spend as much as $44,000 per inmate, per year. Excluding the costs of arrest and prosecution, expenditures on corrections have increased from $9 billion in 1982 to $44 billion in 1997, the Bureau of Justice Statistics says.

“High recidivism rates translate into thousands of new crimes each year and wasted taxpayer dollars, which can be averted through improved prisoner re-entry efforts,” Mrs. Jones said.

“Eventually, we will save our judiciary system millions of dollars in resources,” Mr. Portman’s spokesman said.

Mr. Nolan thinks one of the key aspects of the legislation is the money it sets aside to be used for grants to allow faith-based and community organizations to mentor ex-offenders. He said mentoring provides former inmates with support and “someone to walk with” after their release.

“We cannot continue to have the corrections system exist the way it does now without the support of the community,” said Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. He said he supports the bill because it both lowers the amount of money states spend on prisons and treats ex-offenders as citizens who deserve a second chance.

The National Association of Counties says the bill is the first to treat counties and cities as equal partners with the states in terms of their eligibility for federal grant assistance.

“It makes sense that local government should play a major role in dealing with inmates, so we can try and lower recidivism rates in this country,” said Donald Murray, the associate legislative director of the counties association.

In most states, county jails house persons awaiting trial and inmates convicted of a misdemeanor who are serving less than a year. State prisons generally detain convicted felons serving longer sentences.

Mr. Murray said efforts should focus equally on offenders held in state prisons and those in county jails.

The bill is expected to be approved by the House this year, but its future in the Senate is uncertain.

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