President Bush yesterday signed the Second Chance Act of 2007, taking a key step toward improving the lives of former prisoners by awarding grants to organizations and agencies to improve access to drug and mental health treatment, education, job training, employment, housing, and family services.
The Center for American Progress supported this legislation in a 2007 report, “From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half.” We recommended passage of the Act as one part of an overall effort to reduce recidivism rates and improve the high-poverty communities in which individuals leaving prison often settle.
With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States releases more than 650,000 individuals from prison and another 9 million from jails each year. Most are low-income minority men, and most return to areas of concentrated poverty. Within only three years, nearly half are expected to return to prison—in part due to a lack of social supports for reintegrating into society.
On top of this, an estimated 192,000 individuals are expected to enter prisons over the next five years, which may add $27.5 billion in costs to existing budgets. Their absence from communities places a strain not just on the criminal justice system, but on their families and local economies as well.
Many of the nearly 2.3 million incarcerated individuals today will return to their neighborhoods with significant barriers to successful reentry and reintegration. Over half are functionally illiterate or read below a fourth grade level, many suffer from mental illness, and up to 25 percent have serious health problems like Hepatitis C, tuberculosis and AIDS. After serving their time, former prisoners are entitled to the opportunity to be valuable contributors to the nation and to the economy in the face of these clearly tough hurdles.
The Second Chance Act of 2007, sponsored by a bipartisan coalition in both the House and the Senate, authorizes $165 million in yearly spending—a small fraction of the nearly $60 billion it costs to operate the country’s prisons—to raise the capacity of former inmates and increase the success of their reentry. Programs run by states and local organizations will build upon existing services so that former prisoners can successfully rejoin their local communities.
The Act includes provisions that:
- Authorize demonstration projects that promote successful reentry by connecting prisoners to comprehensive services and creating specially designed task forces that have the goal of reducing recidivism
- Authorize the Attorney General to establish a National Adult and Juvenile Offender Reentry Resource Center to assist grantees in implementing their reentry programs
- Assist state, tribal, and local organizations in creating or expanding drug treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration
- Improve access to vocational, technical, and academic education for inmates in both adult and juvenile facilities
- Lift restrictions on prisoner access to certain educational and reading materials
- Award grants to nonprofit organizations to provide mentoring and transitional services for the reintegration and employment of non-violent offenders
- Help individuals leaving prison obtain documents (birth certificates, social security cards) before reentry
By improving former prisoners’ job prospects, reentry programs help these people avoid committing another crime and contributing to the concentrated poverty of many urban areas. As a result, our cities will be safer, many families will have fathers in the home once again, and our economy will be more productive.
While the Second Chance Act is an important milestone, more work needs to be done to address the harmful effects of incarceration on our communities. Governments should act to restore voting rights to the 5.3 million disenfranchised Americans and to lift the bans on eligibility for government benefits such public assistance and public housing.
The CAP Task Force on Poverty report also highlights the need to address employment discrimination, strengthen connections to families, and establish comprehensive and effective reentry planning services both pre- and post-release.
For more information on the Center’s policies on poverty and reentry, see: