Give ex-felons a second chance

February 20, 2007

Robert C. Hauhart


On Jan. 4, members of the 110th Congress took their seats in the Capitol. While the war in Iraq will no doubt continue to consume the national interest, other important measures await congressional consideration. One is the Second Chance Act of 2005, H.R. 1704, S. 1934.

The Second Chance Act addresses one of the nation's most important, but largely invisible, public problems: prisoner release, community re-entry and offender recidivism. In 2006, the United States passed an important milestone: More than 7 million Americans are under supervision of our corrections systems. More important, at least 700,000 of those presently incarcerated will be released back into society during 2007.

As anyone even mildly familiar with our justice system knows, our nation's record of prisoner rehabilitation is generally poor. Of those released after serving prison time, more than two-thirds will re-offend within three years. The cost to the nation is staggering in terms of lost and wasted lives, new crimes and financial burden. In 1997 the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that more than $44 billion was spent on national, state and local corrections. This figure did not include the costs of either law enforcement or the courts. A mere decade later the total cost for corrections may approach $85 billion -- nearly twice as much.

The Second Chance Act is an effort to re-direct some of our efforts from punishment, which has proven singularly ineffective at reducing crime, to offender re-entry to our communities.

As federal legislation goes, the Second Chance Act is a modest bill. As introduced in 2005, the act would dedicate $100 million to local and state governments to develop programs for prisoners facing release; to provide support for faith-based offender programs; and to support studies that measure the success of programs in reducing recidivism.

While the proposed expenditure is modest (the Iraq war has cost $175 billion so far), the breadth and depth of the programs that may be offered is impressive, even innovative. The variety ranges from money to encourage prison mentors to stay involved with ex-offenders to support for housing; group homes for former drug users; and education, job training, and employment. The need for each is well established.

The National Institute of Justice has found, for example, that 60 percent of ex-offenders remain unemployed one year after release. Studies have also shown that between 15 and 27 percent of releasees seek homeless shelters because of their inability to find housing; an unknown number simply live on our nation's streets.

Other reports indicate 57 percent of federal and 70 percent of state prisoners have a history of drug use/abuse, and 84 percent report drug or alcohol intoxication at or near the time of their offense. Seventy percent of all U.S. prisoners are literate at only the two lowest grade levels. Other obstacles ex-offenders face are not difficult to find.

While not all ex-offender programs have been successful, family based programs, literacy programs, and some drug programs have reduced recidivism. Since 64 percent of female offenders and 44 percent of male offenders lived with their children prior to incarceration, programs that assist family reunification are especially important.

Prisoners with family support show a significantly lower recidivism rate than those without such support. The act would encourage support for families of ex-offenders.

The Second Chance Act has gathered rather remarkable bipartisan support: The House bill secured 114 cosponsors, including Democrat Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle; the Senate version secured 37 co-sponsors, including Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray. The Second Chance Act deserves continued support in Congress. Washington deserves to have other members of its congressional delegation sign on in support.

Robert C. Hauhart, Ph.D., J.D., is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice, Saint Martin's University in Lacey.