17 February 2006

The Second Chance Act

It isn't every day that I find a press release in my e-mail box from Congressman Chris Cannon (R-UT), and simply paying attention to the blogosphere wins him props.

It is even more rare that I agree with Mr. Cannon, who serves on House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. Mr. Cannon is not only a Republican, he's no moderate either. He is a brazen support of the Patriot Act, he is pretty much in Tom Tancredo's camp when it comes to immigration, and I could go on, but I won't. Suffice it to say that usually I disagree with him, particularly on issues within the province of this particular subcommittee. But, his press release on the Second Chance Act was enough to get me, at least, investigating the matter. The text of the guts of it is as follows:

The Second Chance Act is a bipartisan bill that will help coordinate what the federal government does when prisoners come back into society. The bill increases the federal financial support to states and community organizations to help as a growing number of prisoners returns to our communities. The bill addresses issues such as jobs, housing, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and support for families.

The Second Chance Act helps state and local governments to work together to help people who have paid their price to society become contributing citizens. Using this approach we can improve the efficiency of reentry services and make sure that all level of government work together for the returning prisoners and the communities and families they come home to.

It is our responsibility as a society to address the most basic needs of prisoners coming home. Through the Second Chance Act, we can reduce prisoners' chances of re-offending and improve their success as productive, contributing citizens. This legislation is a bipartisan effort that applies new solutions to this problem. We hope to improve our accountability to our citizens and better utilize state and local innovation.

Human Rights Watch summarizes the Bill (H.R. 4676) as follows:

Reducing Crime:

Nearly two-thirds of released prisoners are expected to be re-arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years of release.

Such high recidivism rates translate into thousands of new crimes each year, at least half of which can be averted through improved prisoner reentry efforts.

In 2002, two million people were incarcerated in federal or state prisons.

Nearly 650,000 people are released from prison to communities nationwide each year.

Treating Substance Abuse and Mental Health Problems:

70-80% of offenders re-entering the community have histories of drug or alcohol abuse.

It is estimated that as many as 84% of criminals were under the influence of drugs/alcohol around the time of their offense.

An increasing number of offenders have mental health problems.

If treatment is not sought or available upon release, relapse is likely.

Saving Taxpayer Dollars:

Significant portions of state budgets are now invested in the criminal justice system.

The average cost of incarcerating a prisoner is $22,650 per inmate, per year, with some states spending as much as $44,000 per inmate, per year.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, expenditures on corrections alone increased from $9 billion in 1982 to $44 billion in 1997.

These figures do not include the cost of arrest and prosecution, nor do they take into account the cost to victims.

Strengthening Families and Communities:

One of the most significant costs of prisoner reentry is the impact on children and communities.

Between 1991 and 1999, the number of children with a parent in a federal or state correctional facility increased by more than 100%, from approximately 900,000 to approximately 2,000,000.

Reducing Recidivism Through Common Sense Solutions

National Offender Reentry Resource Center. Establishes a national resource center for states, local governments, service providers, faith-based organization, corrections and community organizations to collect and disseminate best practices and provide training and support around reentry.

Federal Taskforce. Creates a federal interagency taskforce to identify programs and resources on reentry, identify ways to better collaborate, develops interagency initiatives and a national reentry research agenda. Review and report to Congress on the federal barriers that exist to successful reentry with recommendations.

National Family Caregiver Support Program. Removes the age limitation of at least 60 years of age for grandparents to receive support and services while caring for their grandchildren due to parental incarceration.

Technical Amendment to Drug-Free Student Loan Provision. Ensures that the Drug-Free Student Loans provision only applies to offenses committed while receiving federal aid and encourages treatment.

Protection Against Dangerous Felons. Provides grants to states and local governments that may be used to develop or adopt procedures to ensure that dangerous felons are not released from prison prematurely.

Assessment Tools. Provides grants to states and local governments that may be used to utilize established assessment tools to assess the risk factors of returning inmates and prioritizing services based on risk.

Mentoring Grants. Provides grants to community-based organizations that may be used for mentoring of adult offenders or providing transitional services for re-integration into the community.

Demonstration Grants. Provides grants to states and local governments that may be used to provide mental health services, substance abuse treatment and aftercare, and treatment for contagious diseases to offenders in custody and after reentry into the community.

Collaboration with Community Colleges. Provides grants to states and local governments that may be used to facilitate collaboration among corrections and community corrections, technical schools, community colleges, and workforce development employment services.

Post-release Housing. Provides grants to states and local governments that may be used to provide structured post-release housing and transitional housing, including group homes for recovering substance abusers, through which offenders are provided supervision and services immediately following reentry into the community;

Family-Based Treatment. Provides grants to states and local governments that may be used to expand family-based treatment centers that offer family-based comprehensive treatment services for parents and their children as a complete family unit.

The Second Chance Act is a good bill. And, while I might be surprised that Cannon is plogging it, in retrospect, I shouldn't be. There is a srong communitarian instinct in Utah politics, that flows largely from the state's Mormon roots. No state has made more of a commitment to small class sizes in public elementary schools, and Utah was the first state to raise serious objections to the No Child Left Behind Act. A belief that treating substance abuse is a good way to deal with crime is natural in the state with the most restrictive alcohol laws in the Union. And, prison ministry, as well as a belief in the power of redemption, is a long time fixture of even conservative Christianity, and those attitudes are shared by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Also, the bill avoids a great many hot button issues by being a spending bill, rather than than being a bill the chances actual criminal justice statutes. It is hard to pin a "soft on crime" label on someone who is simply spending money on people, generally speaking, once they have already been released from prison (and as recent statistics posted at this blog show, the vast majority of felons are not serving life terms and will re-enter the community). The closest the bill comes to anything other than straight spending is its loosening of the ban on student loans for people who have had drug convictions (something advocated in the area have long argued makes no sense in terms of rehabilitation).

Republicans are increasingly waking up to the fact that sometimes throwing smart money at a problem can solve it. Indeed, smart spending (like that of the Second Chance Act) can reduce dumb spending (like prison spending), far more easily than tax cuts can raise revenue (which rarely happens except on a temporary basis when there is a tax holiday, such as a recent deal the U.S. has offered corporations that which to repatriate their foreign holdings with a reduced tax cost).

Given the Bill's bipartisan backing, it has a very good chance of becoming law, and I don't oppose good law, even when I don't agree with those who back it on a variety of other measures.

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