- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

More than 600,000 inmates will be released from prisons this year. And if present trends continue, within three years nearly two-thirds of those prisoners will be re-arrested for committing a felony or serious misdemeanor. The fiscal burden on taxpayers is enormous: According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, expenditures on corrections increased from $9 billion in 1982 to $44 billion in 1997. That says nothing about the costs of arrest, prosecution, defense, health care or — most importantly — the cost to the victims. It is clearly in the public’s best interest to address the issue of recidivism.

Current attitudes toward prisoner re-entry efforts are not always favorable. A strong desire to see justice carried out often means society wishes to lock a criminal up and throw away the key. But the harsh reality is that most prisoners will be released one day — and they will shop at the same grocery stores, visit the same parks and live right next door to us. A prison system that has not prepared convicts for life outside the strictly controlled regime of prison life has not only failed them, but also the public at large. As President Bush said in his State of the Union address this year, “America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”

Reps. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Mark Souder, Danny Davis and Rob Portman introduced the Second Chance Act of 2004 in late June, which addresses recidivism. The heart of the bipartisan bill provides grants to state and local governments to develop or adopt procedures to ensure that criminals are not released before they are ready. Some prisons across the country have successful faith-based and pre-release programs. One such program, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, is a volunteer, values-based program that operates in four states, including Minnesota, and mentors and aids prisoners on both sides of the gates.

The Second Chance legislation recognizes that, too often, there is no bridge between the prison-based programs and life on the other side. Among other things, it calls for a national offender re-entry resource center and a federal interagency task force, so that faith- and community-based organizations can begin — or in some instances, continue to work with — inmates and governments. The bill also would remove the age limit of 60 years of age for grandparents to receive support while caring for the children of offenders and provides grants for mentoring organizations as well as to state and local governments to establish post-release housing, such as group homes. It also encourages collaboration between correctional facilities and local community colleges and technical schools, to enable prisoners to develop practical skills to gain employment upon release. The price tag is a little more than $100 million, a relatively low-cost program when discussing the federal budget.

Second Chance provides hope for criminals, but remains tough on crime. After all, the bottom line is: When men and women walk through the gates, will the public be safer?

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