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Commentary By Howard Husock

Making Second Chance Act Work For More Former Prisoners

Public Safety, Public Safety Policing, Crime Control, Incarceration, Prisoner Reentry

Last week, the same day that the Senate Judiciary Committee began considering whether and how to extent the Second Chance Act -- designed to better the odds that the 700,000 prisoners released annually will not wind up back behind bars -- the Justice Department’s inspector general released a pointed reminder about the limits of the program’s good intentions.

Even as Congress considers spending more, the IG found that the Justice Department had not devised any good way to monitor $100 million-plus already spent to know whether it’s done anything to reduce the sobering U.S. rate of recidivism. Forty-four percent of those released are rearrested within just the first year.

The scale of the problem, coupled with that lack of good evaluations, makes it imperative for Congress, in reauthorizing the act first passed in the Bush administration, to give priority to “re-entry” programs, which are showing some real promise -- programs which emphasize employment.

Just as welfare-to-work has shown good results -- cutting the number of households on public assistance from more than 5 million to fewer than 2 million -- so, too, can prison-to-work.

The revolving door that sees those released from prison soon return is a problem in many dimensions. It’s a budget problem as states struggle to control the costs of prisons. It’s a public safety problem, especially for our cities, when those released are drawn back into a criminal life.

And it’s a family crisis: An estimated 55 percent of state prison inmates are parents -- most often the absent fathers who, if they were to change their lives, could be the good example that young boys, especially, so often need.

That’s what makes it so important to show success by a “rapid attachment to work.” The premise: to steer those released toward a job -- almost any job -- in the crucial first weeks when they will be tempted to return to crime.

Despite the down economy, the Prisoner Reentry Initiative started by Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker (who notes how often he is personally approached by ex-offenders who ask for jobs more than anything else) has used a combination of federal funds and private philanthropy to place some 58 percent of the 1,051 program participants. To date they have been placed in jobs with an hourly wage of more than $9 per hour -- in construction, food service, sanitation, supermarkets.

What’s more, after more than a year, only 8 percent of all participants have been rearrested. At the same time, crime in Newark has been steadily falling.

Newark is not alone. A Harvard evaluation of New York’s Ready, Willing & Able program, which centers on public service employment and sobriety, found that “three years after prison release, RWA clients have 30 percent fewer arrests than a comparison group matched by demographics and criminal history.”

Low recidivism rates also characterized the Ready4Work program, a national employment-centered demonstration project that operated in 17 cities from 2003 through 2006. It was found to have reduced recidivism by 34 percent to 50 percent below national averages.

To date, however, the Second Chance Act has been unfocused, more like a grab bag of assistance -- substance abuse, housing, mentoring and more. An estimated 60 percent of Second Chance’s demonstration programs were programs not focused on work. It should instead send a message to the state and local governments that will always spend the most on corrections, parole and re-entry: Put work first.

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner