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Feds Bring an Ounce of Sanity to Our Drug Laws with the Second Chance Act

On April 8th, President Bush signed into law the Second Chance Act of 2007. I would like to thank Congress and the President for finally recognizing that most prisoners eventually return home to the families and lives they left behind, and that they need assistance in making this transition.

Unfortunately, our need for re-entry programs is immense because we, as a society, continue to expend enormous resources locking up largely nonviolent people who have drug-related problems. Why are we spending so much money locking up these individuals in the first place? Their crimes - generally adults possessing or distributing prohibited substances -- are largely victimless compared to serious crimes like assault, robbery, rape or murder. Once inside a state or federal prison, these nonviolent people who have broken drug laws -- hardly "hardened criminals" -- often become victims themselves. The Second Chance Act will ease the transition back into society for countless people convicted of drug law violations, so many of whom should never have been sent to prison in the first place.

By now, we've all seen President Bush shed some tears about his own murky past as an alcohol abuser. But his administration has no compassion for people found in similar circumstances who merely chose to self-medicate with different substances. Bush was fortunate to remain out of prison and find salvation and redemption. Most Americans unlucky enough to have substance abuse problems aren't as fortunate. Instead, these people, predominately poor and of color, are sent to prison. In prison, their problematic lives are further compromised by a penal system that reduces their ability to be productive members of society. They suffer, their families suffer and their communities suffer socially and economically.

The Second Chance Act was met with great fanfare and high expectations for its ability to reduce recidivism rates. This is indeed a worthy cause. What is sorely lacking, however, is an honest, open discussion about the abject failure of prohibition and our nation's muddled drug policies. Prohibition demands we lock up people with drug convictions despite a long history of this approach failing to improve society. Instead prohibition creates the very black market system that most people fallaciously assume is endemic to the drugs themselves.

The resulting U.S. gulag, now bursting thanks to nonviolent people with drug-related convictions, is costing us billions of dollars annually and devastating our communities, one person at a time. Today, one in 100 Americans is sitting in federal, state or local prisons and detention centers, according to the latest Pew Report. Recidivism rates suggest that, once we've incarcerated someone with a drug problem, many find themselves trapped in a revolving door pattern with the criminal justice system.

In this respect, the Second Chance Act of 2007 is really more of a second chance for our nation's failed drug policies because it acknowledges that people with problematic relationships with drugs need treatment and other kinds of assistance, not jails and prison records. By signing this act, the President and Congress sent a message that these people need help and should be afforded another opportunity to be productive members of society.

There's an old saying -- an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Why are we still incarcerating people who use controlled substances, when we have ample evidence that this "cure" is worse than the "disease"? Were these individuals offered a second chance prior to being sent to prison, we wouldn't have to worry about reentry or recidivism in the first place. What is really needed is a whole new paradigm: If we weren't making such a big mistake in locking up people with drug problems, we wouldn't need to worry so much about "re-entry" services for them.

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