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Closing Prison's Revolving Door | The Nation

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Closing Prison's Revolving Door

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Te-Ping Chen

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September 20, 2007

At age 39, Terrence Brown has struggled with crack addiction and mental illness, and has no high school degree. Like nearly 40 percent of all black men in New York City, Brown is often unemployed. He could very well find himself in prison.

And not for the first time, either. For the past decade, Brown has traveled the intractable circuit from jail, to the streets of Harlem, to jail again. His story--told to Campus Progress by his sister, Diane Bagley--is grim, but routine. Currently, one in 32 adults in the United States is in jail, on probation, or on parole. A record 2.3 million Americans crowd the nation's prisons. A 2006 survey of local prisons revealed that about 60 percent of inmates are black or Latino (the Department of Justice doesn't release federal minority breakdowns). Most of them will someday be released and of those, two-thirds are likely to be rearrested within three years.

To Bagley, who watched her brother land in and out of jail on drug charges for years, her brother is a casualty of a failed system. "Jail doesn't help him," she said. "He comes out and goes right back in.... He needs proper treatment. What does being in jail solve?"

The failures and excesses of America's longstanding affair with prisons are nothing new. But as state budgets struggle to support swollen prison populations, sky-high rates of recidivism are casting such issues in sharper relief. Every year, 650,000 people are released from prison. As this number continues to rise, policymakers are increasingly forced to think outside the cellblock to keep people like Brown from cycling back in.

The Second Chance Act, first introduced in 2004 by Rep. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), is a prime example of this shift. The bill--which was reintroduced this March and last month passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the heels of similar legislation in the House--would authorize $172 million to support state and county reentry initiatives such as drug treatment and educational programming, as well as grants to community and faith-based organizations that provide mentoring and transitional services to former prisoners.

The legislation aims to address the issues that fuel crime among ex-offenders, instead of spending more money to lock them back up. Since the 1980s, national spending on jails and prisons has ballooned by 619 percent, and now stands at an annual $60 billion. Such a growth rate has outpaced that of every other item in state budgets except health care. In California, for example, rising state prison expenditures are expected to outstrip the state's total higher education budget within five years. Meanwhile this past May, in an attempt to reduce prison crowding, the legislature approved an additional $7.4 billion in correctional spending. Tough on crime, it seems, is tough on budgets, too.

"These priorities are crazy, and people are finally realizing that," said Gene Guerrero, senior policy analyst in criminal justice policy at the Open Society Institute. "We have to reduce incarceration, and we have to start by closing prison's revolving door."

Upon exiting prison, ex-convicts face a veritable Rubik's cube of barriers that radically increase their chances of returning to crime. Like Brown, about three-quarters of prisoners struggle with substance abuse, while two-thirds lack a high school diploma. State and federal laws banning former prisoners from certain jobs and forms of public assistance make the transition to work and stable living still more precarious. In 12 states, for example, people with felony convictions are ineligible for food stamps. In New York, they are barred from public housing for six years.

"These are the lives that everyone said aren't going to make it, the lives that society has thrown away," said Julio Medina, the founder and current director of Exodus, a Harlem-based organization that helps former prisoners reintegrate into society.

According to the Bureau of Justice's latest statistics, well over half of people incarcerated have mental health or substance abuse problems. Only a minority are ever rehabilitated. Nationwide in 2004, only 39 percent of state prisoners with substance abuse problems received treatment. The Bureau of Justice reports that the percentage of local jail inmates with mental illnesses receiving treatment is 17 percent. In cities such as Oakland, Calif., released prisoners are sent packing with little more than $200 and a bus ticket. Not surprisingly, most end up in jail or prison again.

So while strident calls to "lock ‘em up and throw away the key" won easy nods from voters during the 1980s and 1990s, three expensive decades of mass incarceration and a failed war on drugs have left the public considerably more skeptical. (In 2001, 74 percent of Americans polled said that the United States was losing the war on drugs.) After all, the millions of cases like Brown's suggest that such policies just aren't working.

And while rehabilitating former prisoners may seem an unlikely issue to inspire conservative backing, a series of Republican bellwethers from Brownback to California Congressman Dan Lungren (a conservative stalwart who once defended the state's three-strikes law) are lining up behind the bill. In fact, the White House has become one of the issue's most conspicuous proponents, with President George W. Bush championing the issue in his 2004 State of the Union Address. The Second Chance Act's moral theme of redemption appeals to the religious base, as does the support it offers to faith-based organizations.

While there is no shortage of moral and economic arguments for the Second Chance Act, the most persuasive line is simpler: Investing in prisoner reentry works. A three-year Department of Labor program called Ready4Work that started providing career mentoring to prisoners in 2003 has been shown to reduce recidivism by 50 percent. Harlem's Exodus program keeps three-quarters of its clients from re-entering prison. Another Department of Education study found that schooling inmates cut recidivism by nearly 30 percent.

As get-tough logic has worn increasingly threadbare in recent decades, the debate over criminal justice policy is finally beginning to catch up to such facts.

"The floodgates have been knocked down," said Sasha Abramsky, author of American Furies: Crime, Vengeance and Punishment in the Age of Mass Imprisonment. Nevertheless, Abramsky cautions that if change continues, it will be gradual. "Even if public support is strong, it will take substantial effort, money, and political willpower to change policy directions," he said.

But the seeds are there. Across the country, broad support for prisoner reentry is coalescing. Nearly every state has established a commission on prisoner reentry, and more than 200 organizations have endorsed the bill. "For a long time, groups weren't even speaking the same language on the issue," said Glenn Martin, who co-directs the Legal Action Center's efforts to help people with criminal records find employment. "But the 2004 State of the Union sparked a national movement, and what we're seeing now is a reentry field really starting to emerge." In recent years, the percentage of Americans who support providing prisoners with job training and education has risen to more than 90 percent.

Nevertheless, while the Second Chance Act is promising, advocates caution the bill is no panacea. "Most reform still needs to happen at the state and county level, because that's where the majority of institutional barriers for former prisoners lie," said Kate Rubin, who coordinates Reentry Net, a New York-based initiative providing resources to state and national entities working on prisoner reentry.

Likewise, Barry Campbell of the Fortune Society, one of the country's oldest prisoner reentry organizations, praises the act, but critiques how the House version of the bill excludes violent ex-offenders from some of its provisions. "Those are the individuals that need it the most," he said, "and if we're treating this as a public safety issue, we absolutely cannot exclude them."

Still, the act signals a radical departure from previous policy. As a piece in The New York Times Magazine observed, if passed, the Second Chance Act will be the first piece of federal legislation to take a restorative, rather than a punitive approach, to crime.

That's a great development, said the Legal Action Center's Martin, but only a first step. "The United States still locks up more people than any other country in the world," he said. "Beyond just prisoner reentry, we can't overlook the deeper questions of why we put so many people in prison in the first place."

Te-Ping Chen is a senior at Brown University and spent this past summer interning with the Voter Enfranchisement Project at the Bronx Defenders.

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