The Second Chance Act helps keep ex-inmates out of prison
AMERICA releases 700,000 prisoners a year. Their prospects are bleak. Three-quarters drink too much or take drugs. One in six has mental-health problems. Most struggle to find a job or a place to stay. Within three years, two-thirds of them are back in prison.
The Second Chance Act aims to cut crime and save money by reducing the reoffending rate. It was passed with bipartisan support in 2008, and is now up for renewal. Pundits expect it to pass again, not least because some of the programmes it funds in 49 states appear to work.
Two years ago, for example, Daniel Jackson stole money from his employer to pay for drugs. He was jailed for 74 days in the Washington County Detention Centre in Maryland. After his release he failed a drug test, and was soon back behind bars for another seven months. This time, he took part in “re-entry” programmes. One dealt with his drug addiction; another helped him be a better parent. Mr Jackson has now been home for a year.
Most prisoners are black or Hispanic and have not finished high school. Pew Charitable Trust found that young black men without a high-school diploma are more likely to be behind bars than to have a job. So prisons that educate their inmates are less likely to see them again. A RAND Corporation study found that education lowers the rate of reoffending by 13 percentage points, partly because it makes young men more employable. Several states and cities are now investing in classes for convicts. San Francisco has set up a charter school inside its county jail.
One of the best ways to go straight is to find a job. But employers are understandably wary of ex-cons, who can therefore expect to earn 40% less than before they were locked up. Several post-release programmes aim to help newly-released prisoners find work, but it is not easy. The Harlem Parole Re-entry Court, a programme in New York, coaches ex-cons in job skills such as building repairs, and helps them travel to work. Some 33% of participants were employed a year after release; 15% were back in prison. For a group of parolees who did not take part, the figures were 25% and 19%.
If the law is renewed, outfits that get money will have to show, with proper data, how effective they have been. Matching inmates with the right programme is crucial, says Michael Thompson, the head of the Justice Centre at the Council of State Governments. For example, an anger-management course may not stop people joining gangs.
Several states are trying to reform prisoners. In June 2011 Bev Perdue, the governor of North Carolina, signed a law requiring all felons to receive at least nine months of supervision after being released. The state has just approved the closure of five prisons, though this is largely due to a wider fall in crime. Programmes in Texas, Michigan, Kansas and Ohio have helped towards a total fall of 11%-18% in reoffending rates in those states for inmates released in 2005 and 2007, according to the Council of State Governments.
A new study by the National Centre for State Courts praises the Red Hook Community Court in Brooklyn. This court, a short walk from one of Brooklyn’s biggest housing projects, handles low-level crime. Between 2008 and 2010 78% of offenders received community-service or social-service penalties, compared with 22% of cases processed at the regular criminal courthouse. Very few are sent to jail. Offenders processed there are 10% less likely to commit new crimes in the two years after their arraignment than offenders processed in traditional courts. Red Hook has become a model for three dozen community courts in cities such as San Francisco and Newark.
About 95% of inmates in state prisons are going to return to their communities. If help is not provided, most will then bounce back to prison. Harlem’s Exodus Transitional Community, which has just received Second Chance Act funding, usually helps 400 people a year by providing mentors, advice about getting a job and training to use the internet. The new money means it will be able to help 700 more—and, with luck, prevent them seeing the inside of a jail cell again.
Via The Economist