States Want Second Chance Act Funded

 

With correctional facilities around the country teeming with repeat offenders, state and local officials are hoping the Second Chance Act - a federal law signed by President Bush in April to help keep former prisoners from committing new crimes - will be a priority under the incoming Obama administration.

The act, which Congress approved with widespread bipartisan support, authorizes $165 million in annual grants to states, localities, nonprofits and religious groups to build programs that help current and ex-offenders find jobs and housing, overcome drug and alcohol addictions, receive mentoring and return to society as law-abiding residents.

When he signed the bill into law , President Bush called it a sign of support for the roughly 700,000 people who are released from state and federal prisons each year. Federal statistics show that more than two thirds of all those released from prison are rearrested for serious crimes within three years.

That has resulted in surging prison populations - and corrections costs - for many states. Corrections trails only health care, education and transportation among state expenses, costing states nearly $50 billion last year.

Despite the new law's promise of federal dollars to fund so-called "reentry" initiatives, Congress has not appropriated the money. State and local lawmakers, corrections officials, advocacy groups and others now are pushing the incoming Congress - and the administration of President-elect Barack Obama - to provide funding, perhaps in a spending measure that could come up for debate as early as January.

"States are very anxious for the Second Chance dollars because of how high a priority reentry and recidivism is," said Jessica Nickel, director of government affairs with the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments . She said the nation's economic slide - which has battered state budgets and threatens funding for anti-recidivism initiatives - "makes the need for these dollars a little more pressing."

States "are lobbying hard for it," said state Rep. Pat Colloton (R) of Kansas , where a program first launched in 2004 to assist former prisoners has helped reduce recidivism in the state by about a third, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden were strong backers of the Second Chance Act as U.S. senators. The president-elect, in a survey published by the International Association of the Chiefs of Police in October, promised to "ensure that Congress robustly funds prevention and treatment programs like the Second Chance Act." Biden was one of the chief architects of the new law, Nickel said.

The act has won praise from both conservatives and liberals, partly because it avoids taking more controversial measures to reduce prison populations, such as relaxing sentencing laws or releasing inmates early to ease overcrowding. Kentucky recently released more than 1,000 criminals, including some violent offenders, to free up prison space; other states, including California , have considered similar steps, drawing protests.

Instead, the Second Chance Act builds on recent efforts in a handful of states, including Illinois , Kansas , Michigan and Texas , to help cut jail and prison populations by providing more resources to inmates who return to society and are at risk of committing new crimes.

Recidivism has been cited as a leading factor in the nation's soaring incarceration rate, which has hit 1 in 100 adults for the first time ever, according to a study released this year by the Public Safety Performance Project (which, like Stateline.org , is part of the Pew Center on the States).

In some states, recidivism has caused severe overcrowding problems. In California , for example, the number of parolees sent back to prison has nearly tripled over the past two decades, reaching 93,000 last year, according to an April report by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"All of the states are facing huge costs of building prisons. At the same time, states are in huge budget deficits," Colloton said. "If you have to spend another $400 million to add a wing to your state prison, you need relief."

Colloton cited the Kansas program as proof that reentry efforts can work. She said the initiative links former offenders with help in their community, from job-placement agencies to landlords willing to rent them rooms.

Despite the success of the program, Colloton said she wants federal Second Chance funding to help Kansas develop mental health courts, which can help offenders battling mental illness stay out of prison if they meet conditions set out by a judge.

Dennis Schrantz, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, said the Second Chance Act "is a great opportunity for the new administration and the new Congress to collaborate with the states" to reduce prison costs and provide rehabilitation services. He said he is pushing for Second Chance funding to be used in Michigan 's major cities, "where it would have a greater impact" than on a statewide level.

But Schrantz also sounded a cautionary note about the act.

Even if the act is funded at $100 million annually - a figure most experts say is unlikely during the current fiscal year - Schrantz noted it would only provide about $2 million per state, if the money is divided evenly among the states. Michigan , by contrast, already uses $33 million in state money annually to fund reentry programs, Schrantz said, noting that reentry has been a campaign priority for Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D).

Meanwhile, there is some hand-wringing among supporters of the Second Chance Act over whether Congress will appropriate funds for ex-offenders at a time when other interests - from Wall Street to the auto industry - are pressing for emergency federal assistance. Indeed, some Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives opposed the Second Chance Act because, they said, it places former prisoners too high on the priority list.

"This bill would provide more benefits to felons than are available to those risking their lives in the service of the United States military," U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a former judge, said while the Second Chance Act was being debated in the House of Representatives last year.

 
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