April 8, 2008
U.S. Shifting Prison Focus to Re-entry Into Society
By ERIK ECKHOLM
Back in the 1970s and '80s, high crime and "get tough" laws meant longer sentences and more emphasis on punishment than on rehabilitation, and the federal and state governments spent billions building prisons.
Today, as a legacy of those policies, not only are record numbers incarcerated, but also about 700,000 state and federal prisoners are released annually, many of them with little education or employment prospects and destined to be imprisoned again within a few years.
In a sharp change in attitudes about incarceration, many states and private groups have recently experimented with "re-entry" programs to help released prisoners fit back into their communities and avoid new crime.
The strategy will get a major boost this week. President Bush is to sign the Second Chance Act in a public ceremony on Wednesday, making rehabilitation a central goal of the federal justice system. In a sign of how far the pendulum has swung, the measure passed Congress with nearly unanimous bipartisan support.
With the new law, the federal government is to provide more money and leadership in a field where progress is likely to be difficult at best, experts agree.
"From our perspective, this is a huge development," said Michael Thompson, director of the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments. "Governors, legislatures, corrections and law enforcement agencies around the country were all very supportive of the act."
The new push to help prisoners reintegrate into society has been driven in part by financial concerns: states cannot afford to keep building more prisons. It also reflects concern for the victims of repeat offenders and for the wasted lives of the offenders themselves, who are disproportionately black and from neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.
The act authorizes $165 million in spending per year, including matching grants to state and local governments and nongovernmental groups to experiment with efforts like more schooling and drug treatment inside prison and aid with housing, employment and the building of family and community ties after release.
It also directs the Justice Department to step up research on re-entry issues and establishes a national Reentry Resource Center to promote successful approaches and provide training.
"This act represents a major change in crime policy," said Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who as a Justice Department official in the Clinton administration and the author of "But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry" (Urban Institute Press, 2005) helped promote the shift.
Over the last decade, the re-entry cause has been embraced by an unusually wide range of groups and individuals, including evangelical Christians and liberal activists. Mr. Bush called for such a law in 2004 and in Congress, key sponsors included Senator Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican from Kansas, and Representative Danny K. Davis, a liberal Democrat from Illinois.
"It's been a bipartisan coalition," Mr. Travis said, "the sort of thing that doesn't happen in Washington these days."