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Editorial: A real break from prison

The Second Chance Act signed by President Bush last week has a laudable goal: Reduce the number of repeat offenders in our prisons by putting more emphasis on programs that help released inmates re-enter society.
Of the 700,000 inmates released from prison each year, an estimated two-thirds are behind bars within three years. That high rate of recidivism is one reason we can’t build prisons and jails fast enough to keep pace with an inmate population of about 2.3 million Americans ó a number that gives this country one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Reducing the recidivism rate by even a modest amount would significantly reduce the growth pains on the penal system at all levels.
While rehabilitation has always been one of the stated goals of our justice system, chronically high recidivism rates point instead to the revolving door aspect of incarceration. To slow down that door ó or, better yet, offer a better passage way ó we need to provide more support for inmates making an honest effort to transition back into civilian life. Cutting down on repeat offenders would both reduce the burden on prisons while turning former criminals into productive citizens.
To accomplish that goal, the act provides grants to state and local governments, as well as non-profit groups that help provide housing, health care and employment for former inmates. Because finding ó and keeping ó gainful employment can be difficult for someone with a criminal record, the program emphasizes vocational training and mentoring. Since many offenders wind up behind bars because of substance abuse problems, it will also provide better drug treatment, along with additional mental-health services. Another element will encourage states to increase efforts to reunite families that often disintegrate when a parent goes to prison, often with dire consequences for children in the household.
We already know many of the factors that influence recidivism rates. Inmates who can develop vocational skills, increase their education and find stable jobs are far more likely to stay out of jail than inmates who remain unemployed and addicted to drugs. Inmates who maintain family ties have a better shot at remaining free than those who primarily consort with former ó or future ó criminals. By monitoring the impact of the Second Chance programs, we can improve these strategies and determine the most cost-effective efforts at rehabilitation.
Initially, Congress has been asked to appropriate $165 million for the program. Within the context of $55 billion spent nationally on corrections per year, that’s a modest investment, but it signals a major shift in thinking. While the corrections system’s first priority is protecting the public at large from dangerous offenders, society would gain substantial benefits if more inmates could be diverted from the revolving door of prison into productive roles as conscientious employees, family providers and law-abiding citizens. It’s a chance worth taking.

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