For decades, the politics of crime has been a one-way street. Politicians competed over who could be tougher on crime, enacting mandatory minimums, abolishing parole and passing “three-strikes” laws that sent young men to prison for life for stealing a slice of pizza.
So what explains the unlikely alliance of such traditional foes as Democratic Senator Pat Leahy and Republican Sam Brownback behind the Second Chance Act, which President Bush signed into law April 9 with Democratic Congressman John Conyers by his side? The law that prompted such unusual bipartisan agreement does not increase criminal penalties or build new prisons. Instead, it authorizes $330 million in federal grants to support the re-entry of prisoners into society upon release from prison. Common cause is rare enough in Washington these days, but most observers had long considered common cause around any law that could might be characterized as “soft on crime” positively extinct.
In fact, enactment of the Second Chance Act may reflect a deeper shift in the politics of crime. In the 1970s, state and federal authorities largely gave up on rehabilitating prisoners. At the same time, the war on drugs and tough-on-crime sentencing laws fueled a dramatic explosion in the nation’s prison population. From 1979 to 2005, the US incarceration rate tripled, and drug offenses went from accounting for 6 percent of the nation’s prisoners to 25 percent. Today, the United States has 2.3 million people in prison or jail, and boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world–five times higher than the next highest Western country, the United Kingdom.
But the prison boom has come home to roost. The more people we send into prison, the more people come out of prison each year. This year, between 600,000 and 700,000 prisoners will be released–without the skills or resources to get their lives back in order.
As a result, there is a renewed interest in re-entry, the twenty-first-century term for rehabilitation. The interest is first and foremost driven by community safety. If we don’t do anything to help, half of those released will be convicted for another crime within three years. We can’t afford to give up on re-entry if we want to do anything about crime.
We also can’t afford to give up rehabilitation in a more literal sense. We spent $9 billion on prisons and jails nationwide in 1982. Twenty years later, the figure was $60 billion. It costs about as much to house a prisoner for a year as it does to send a young man to an elite private university–and all prison is likely to teach him is how to commit crime again. Several states spend more on prisons than they do on higher education. Without re-entry, prison will become a revolving door.
But most importantly, re-entry reflects a renewed commitment to the possibility of rehabilitation. As President Bush explained when signing the Second Chance Act, “We believe that even those who have struggled with a dark past can find brighter days ahead.” The world’s religions have long taught that no one is irredeemable–for a generation or two, we seem to have forgotten that lesson.
The new federal law is part of a bigger picture. Driven by concerns about fiscal responsibility and justice, twenty-two states from 2004-06 adopted legislative and executive reforms to reduce incarceration. In 2007, nine states created task forces or commissions to address sentencing, prison overcrowding, and re-entry services.
The question now is whether the bipartisan consensus reflected in the Second Chance Act can support still further reforms. We need to reduce our reliance on overly harsh sentences at the outset, particularly for the many nonviolent offenders for whom prison is simply not necessary. And we could do much more in terms of re-entry as well. Three hundred and thirty million dollars may seem like a lot of money at first blush–until you realize that we spend more than twice that much every day on the war in Iraq.