National and local observers across the country are looking forward to the promise of the Second Chance Act, which was passed by Congress recently and signed into law by President Bush.
The bill is designed to provide more than $360 million next year and in 2010 to help ex-offenders return to normal society through prisoner re-entry services.
The overall goal of the new law is to assist the more than 700,000 people who are released from prisons each year and reduce recidivism, or the rate of ex-prisoners who violate their release agreement with new crimes and end up back in jail. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, at least 66 percent of ex-offenders re-offend at some point.
Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., an author of the Second Chance Act, said the law is necessary because ex-offenders deserve a second chance.
“Their families, spouses and children, deserve a second chance and their communities deserve a second chance,” said Davis. “A second chance means an opportunity to turn a life around; a chance to break the grip of a drug habit; and a chance to support a family, pay taxes and be self-sufficient.”
Specifically, more funds will be set aside for programs that help inmates obtain identification documents such as birth certificates and social security cards prior to release from prison. In addition, the law provides federal funding for programs related to substance abuse, medication, family stability, job training and incentives for employers who hire former prisoners.
Davis hopes the new law will reduce some of the barriers he said are keeping most ex-offenders from becoming stable, productive members of society.
“When the prison door swings open an ex-offender may receive a bus ticket and spending money for a day or two,” said Davis. “Many leave prison to return to the same environment which saw them offend in the first place. But, as they return they often face additional barriers to reentry: serious physical and mental health problems, no place to stay and lack of education or qualifications to hold a job.”
Local observers such as Rev. Byron E. Vaughn couldn’t agree more, and welcome the passage of the Second Chance Act.
“I think it’s a good first step in the right direction if the money is put in the right places,” said Vaughn, director and founder of Prisoners Reform United Inc., a local non-profit organization devoted to helping ex-offenders make a transition back into communities by providing positive alternatives to illegal choices, as well as solutions to unfavorable conditions that keep ex-offenders from having stable lives.
Vaughn added that government funding and private donations often don’t reach organizations on a grassroots level that work with former inmates on a day to day basis, so little impact is made on reducing recidivism.
Greg Keesling, an advocate for ex-offenders attempting to turn their lives around, agrees that proper distribution of funds is needed.
“The Second Chance Act will be hugely helpful, but it still has to be actually funded,” said Keesling, director of Workforce Inc., which helps ex-offenders re-enter society by offering them stable jobs recycling materials from used electronics.
Keesling noted that in his experience, one of the greatest challenges faced by ex-offenders is finding honest work to eliminate the punishing debt they face due to fees.
He cited the cases of several clients who could not appear in court to answer a warrant for not paying child support and ended up paying a fee. This occurred despite the fact that they could not attend because they were already jailed for another offense.
Some, Keesling added, also owe the state thousands of dollars in welfare costs for their children, and turn to the quick money of crime in order to pay them.
“Sometimes work release fees and child support end up costing more than their job provides,” said Keesling. “An individual who has just been released can be in as much as $20,000 in debt, which is like being saddled with a heavy student loan. How can that be paid? The burden of costs for our criminal justice system has been largely shifted to some of the poorest people in our communities.”
Vaughn and Warren George, who are both former inmates, also agrees that finding employment is also a major obstacle for ex-offenders.
George noted that ex-offenders often face quiet discrimination in hiring practices when they respond “yes” to questions asking if they have a criminal record. He experienced such an incident years ago, which led to the loss of a job, and he lived with the support of families for two years before he was able to find his current position at a factory.
“The key is to be persistent and not give up,” said George. “There are a lot of things available even if you have just been released from prison. You have to first want to do something, then be ready to enhance your skills through training programs if your current job is not providing enough of a living.”
George added that having a professional, articulate presentation will ease the anxiety some employers have about hiring ex-offenders.
Vaughn agreed, saying programs should help ex-offenders market themselves with pride.
“They have to realize that they are a product and must sell themselves and their skills,” he said.