Reauthorizing the Second Chance Act Is Essential to More Successful Prisoner Re-Entry | Commentary

About 95 percent of the people in our prisons will eventually return to society. It is in all of our interests to give these individuals a second chance.

That may mean helping someone break a drug habit, acquire needed skills or deal with a mental health issue to hold a job, support a family and pay taxes. The spouses, children and extended family of ex-offenders deserve a second chance and if re-entry programs are successful, our communities will be safer, and taxpayers will save millions of dollars annually.

Today, few who return to their communities are prepared for their release or receive the proper support services. When the prison door opens, an ex-offender often faces the world with a bus ticket and spending money for a day or two. Many return to the environment that encouraged them to offend in the first place.

Without needed support, too many resume a life of crime: 2 out of 3 will be rearrested within three years of their release. Youthful offenders are even more likely to re-offend.

There is a bipartisan consensus on the need for criminal justice reform, in part driven by the sustained success of the Second Chance Act of 2008. Building on this already proven, effective bill, the Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2015 has been introduced in the Senate and the House.

The Second Chance Act was first-of-its-kind legislation introduced by us with bipartisan support and backed by leaders in law enforcement, corrections, courts, worker retraining, drug treatment and other areas.

It represents an investment to leverage proven strategies to reduce recidivism, increase public safety and reduce costs for state and local governments.

The bill provides crucial matching resources at a time when they are desperately needed. Today, federal and state prisons and jails hold a record 2.2 million people — about 1 in every 200 U.S. residents — and releases more than 630,000 individuals back to their communities annually.

Unfortunately, most people face numerous challenges during that transition.

Since the Second Chance Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, more than 120,000 people returning home from incarceration have benefited from grants providing career training, mentoring, substance abuse treatment and other evidence-based re-entry programs.

This investment has paid dividends, with Ohio, Illinois and other states experiencing significant reductions in statewide recidivism rates, and reduced crime rates.

The 47 Second Chance grants utilized by Ohio helped reduce its recidivism rate by 11 percent since 2005. It now stands at 27.1 percent, nearly half the national average — but we can do more. Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute in Cleveland gives formerly incarcerated adults a foundation in the hospitality industry through a six-month program where they work in a kitchen and dining room and ultimately graduate with the opportunity of starting a job in the restaurant industry. The Second Chance Reauthorization Act would expand eligibility to non-profit organizations, allowing the successful Edwins program to apply for job training grants.

Meanwhile, Illinois has utilized 16 Second Chance grants to aid the difficult transition from prison to the community, by promoting more effective and successful re-entry for offenders through the establishment and maintenance of pre- and post-release mentoring relationships for adults.

The Illinois Department of Corrections used its Second Chance grant to expand its Moms & Babies Program, a nursery program at the Decatur Correctional Center in central Illinois. The program reinforces family relationships by allowing qualified mothers to keep their newborns with them in prison for up to 24 months. Family is a key factor in successful re-entry, with research showing people who regularly interact with their families while incarcerated are less likely to recidivate than those who don’t.

The Second Chance Reauthorization Act makes a good law better by consolidating programs to work more efficiently, repealing studies that have been completed and removing support for programs for which other funding sources have been identified. The legislation has been endorsed by many different groups, including state corrections departments, law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, judicial organizations and evangelical groups.

While no single piece of legislation is going to solve the re-entry challenge we are facing, the Second Chance Act is a foundational start.

We hope that, with the passage of this bill, we can do more to channel the bipartisan interest in addressing this problem, and ensure our families are stronger, our communities are safer, fewer tax dollars are going into incarceration and individuals are given the second chance they deserve.

Sen. Rob Portman is a Republican representing the state of Ohio. Rep. Danny K. Davis is a Democrat representing the 7th District in the state of Illinois.

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