The Second Chance Act: A First Step Forward to Curb Recidivism

As the presidential candidates fiercely debate everything from the struggling economy to the war in Iraq to healthcare policy, there are two issues voters won't be hearing much about: prisons and former prisoners. None of the presidential hopefuls is likely to reference, for instance, the latest report released by the Pew Center, which states that one in 100 American adults is currently in jail or prison. The U.S. locks up a greater percentage of our citizens than any other country. In many cases, we lock up the same people over and over again. Thirty-nine percent of prisoners have served three or more sentences, and hundreds of prisons are overcrowded because those who get out just keep coming back-all to the great detriment of the communities to which they return.

Being the world's leader in incarceration is a dubious distinction indeed, and the churning in and out of prisons undermines programs established to lift up low-income communities. Also, it's expensive. The U.S. currently spends $45 billion a year on prisons, up from $7 billion in 1980. In many states, it costs $40,000 to keep someone in prison for one year-as much as a year's worth of tuition at Harvard University.

Thankfully, some of our nation's leaders have taken an important first step toward addressing prisoner reentry issues. Two weeks ago, the Senate joined the House in passing the Second Chance Act, a bill that authorizes a new stream of funding for reentry programs. We should seize this moment to push for further reforms.

It won't be easy: lawmakers who tout the benefits of rehabilitation and prisoner reentry services risk being called "soft on crime" and since current and former prisoners don't vote (many of them are prohibited from doing so by law), politicians seem to have little to gain from championing their cause. But, with high imprisonment and re-incarceration rates ravaging many low-income neighborhoods and raising taxes, we need our representatives and our presidential candidates to make reentry programs a lasting, long-term priority.

Some lawmakers are ahead of the game. Because most prisoners come from -- and return to -- urban neighborhoods, it is mayors who are witnessing the devastating toll of mass imprisonment and recidivism most vividly. It is no coincidence then they are taking the lead on finding a solution. Last month, Public/Private Ventures, a national nonprofit organization that works to improve social policies and programs and recently completed a successful $30-million 17-site reentry demonstration project, joined the NYU Wagner School of Public Service, the United States Conference of Mayors and the City of New York in convening mayors from around the country at a Summit on Prisoner Reentry and Employment. Seven mayors and other high-level representatives from more then 20 U.S. cities made the trip to New York City to share promising strategies for helping former inmates find steady jobs after their release -- and avoid a return to prison.

Ninety-five percent of all current prisoners will be released at some point and, at the current rate, more than half of them will return to prison within three years. This means that, if we do not implement solid strategies that help them get back on their feet, most prisoners will commit another crime, and often a more serious crime than the one that sent them to prison in the first place. This makes cities less safe, raises our taxes and leads to decreased productivity in our economy. More and more cities and mayors are investing in programs that ease prisoners' transition back into society-programs that include job placement assistance, counseling and drug treatment services.

Our goal should be to cut the national recidivism rate in half by 2012. The Second Chance Act is a promising first step in addressing our prison crisis and saving our cities, but we need to do more. Hopefully, through the remainder of the election season and beyond, we will realize that, while America is a proud leader in many things, incarceration should not be one of them.

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