The compassion and bipartisanship that President Bush promised in the 2000 election campaign made a long-awaited appearance this week as he signed a law to help prisoners re-enter society. The Second Chance Act, five years in the making, is a welcome relief from the simplistic lock-’em-up posture of recent decades that has the United States leading the world in incarceration. It is an important start, but more still needs to be done.
Close to 1.6 million Americans are in prison, a figure that does not count the more than 700,000 people held in local jails. While 650,000 prisoners are released each year, an estimated two-thirds of them can expect to return to prison within three years. Little help is extended for newly released prisoners making this unpromising transition, particularly compared with society’s mammoth investment in building more prisons.
The failure to integrate former prisoners into society is bad for them and for society, since it leads to more crime. The new law offers grants to state and local governments and nonprofit groups specializing in housing, health and employment for ex-prisoners. It emphasizes vocational training, individual mentoring and better drug treatment. And it calls for pilot programs for elderly nonviolent offenders, who cost more than $20,000 a year to keep in prison, as well as alternatives to jail for parents convicted of nonviolent crimes.