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.