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November 7, 2007

NY Times editorial pushing Second Chance Act

This morning's New York Times has this editorial entitled "A Second Chance for Ex-Offenders." Here are excerpts:

If past patterns hold true, more than half of the 650,000 prisoners released this year will be back behind bars by 2010. With the prison population exploding and the price of incarceration now topping $60 billion a year, states are rightly focusing on ways to reduce recidivism. Congress can give these efforts a boost by passing the Second Chance Act, which would provide crucial help to people who have paid their debts to society....

The Second Chance Act would add to what the country knows about the re-entry process by establishing a federal re-entry task force, along with a national resource center to collect and disseminate information about proven programs....  The programs necessary to help former prisoners find a place in society do not exist in most communities.  The Second Chance Act would help to create those programs by providing money, training, technical assistance — and a Congressional stamp of approval.

It is sad but telling that the Second Chance Act has not yet become a reality even though it has had bipartisan support since President Bush in his 2004 State of the Union address spoke passionately about the importance of showing compassion (and providing job training and placement services) to convicted offenders because "America is the land of second chance."   

Some related posts discussing the Second Chance Act:

November 7, 2007 at 07:24 AM | Permalink


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When has creating a new bureaucracy to create a "task force" to set up a "national resource center" to collect and disseminate information, create reports, blah blah blah (all at taxpayer expense) ever solved any problem? Never.

The reason we have such high recidivism rates is simple: people with felony convictions cannot get jobs because nobody will hire them, many can't live within 1000 feet of pretty much everything (causing them to live amongst other criminals), many have probation/parole conditions which are practically impossible to follow to the letter (thus causing revocations which are deemed 'recidivism' at the pleasure of the state), and many are mere possessory drug offenders who have not been given necessary treatment and are prone to relapsing.

We don't need to spend money to create a new "task force" to lower the recidivism rate. As far as the Government and Prison Industry are concerned, the more people in prison the better, and everyone sent back is another dollar of real and/or political capital gained. Politicians can point to the increase in prison population as an increase in effective law enforcement, which they support and are thus "tough on crime" -- and they'll get re-elected. More prisoners means more prisons which means more jobs. It also means CCI stock goes up a few more points.

The only people who are harmed by our huge prison population are the people in prison. And their voices don't count, hell, they're not even allowed to vote (gee, I wonder why).

Want to fix our huge incarceration problem? Legalize drugs and tax them like alcohol, grant a general amnesty to everyone currently serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Allow people to buy cocaine, meth, and heroin right next to the vodka, tequila, and whisky. Teach kids how drugs work and how to use them safely starting in first grade. Pass out needles and show the kids how to inject drugs properly. Half the kids won't want to use drugs because they're no longer forbidden fruit but rather another class between chemistry and history. The other half will know how to use drugs safely and properly.

We don't need a task force to start a national center to study things. We need to have a common sense drug policy.

Posted by: bruce | Nov 8, 2007 4:25:57 AM

"The only people who are harmed by our huge prison population are the people in prison."

No, Bruce, they are only the tip of the iceberg. There is a vast, invisible group of people who are harmed, namely their families. Parents lose their children to prisons. Wives and husbands lose their spouses, and few marriages survive long prison sentences. Children lose their parents and often end up in foster care and as future grist for the prison mill. The amount of harm done to millions of Americans who are prisoners' families is huge. If this group of people could come together and organize, they might become a powerful lobby for change.

Then there is the harm done to rural communities which become economically dependent on the local prison and see their traditional businesses close. There is the psychological toll taken on correctional officers who perform an extremely stressful job, frequently for low pay, as well as their families. There is our entire population which, instead of benefitting from tax money paid by people who had help getting off drugs and getting jobs and education, must spend billions to support them in prison. And there is our country, whose prestige is diminished by being seen by the rest of the world as a "prison nation."

And yes, I do support the Second Chance Act with all of its flaws. Its passage might make more legislators feel that they can speak out sensibly on prisons and recidivism without being seen as "soft on crime."

Posted by: disillusioned layman | Nov 8, 2007 8:04:43 AM

I don't disagree with you, and certainly the families of those incarcerated are hurt too, both financially and emotionally. But just like how religious people feel morally superior to atheists, people not in prison or related to someone in prison feel morally superior to and look down on those who are. "If they're in prison, they did something to deserve it" is our national criminal justice mantra. And i've seen it a thousand times, the criminal is blamed for the harm incarceration does to his/her family. A a single mother is taken away from her children for possessing some pot, and it's entirely HER fault that her kids now have to go into foster care, torn away from their mother. We never blame the laws, only those who violate them.

As a lawyer, I no longer argue to the judge the effects incarceration will have on my client's family, because I know what the response will be -- an angry "Well that's your client's fault, he should have thought about his family before he broke the law!" from both the judge and the prosecutor. It's as though family members are intentionally punished to increase the collateral harm done to the offender, in order to make a public example so that others will, in theory, not break the same laws.

I don't buy your argument about rural communities who become addicted to prison jobs in exchange for their old jobs. That same argument can be made about any business we don't want to expand. And it's not like prisons are putting Wal-Marts out of business. Come on.

The bottom line is the more people we lock up, the safer we feel and the better off we feel about ourselves. "Those people" (and their families) are sub-humans and their voices either legally do not count or sociologically do not count. That's the (unfortunate) attitude of America these days. Lock em up and throw away the key, no matter what they did. Must protect the children.

And there it is. Protecting the children. The bane of modern policymaking. I blame the 19th Amendment; once women were permitted to vote, the maternal instinct was permanently injected into politics. Now everything is about protecting children. That means locking up every single person who poses a theoretical threat to a child. Sex offenders, drug dealers, drug users, drunk drivers, you name it. And if a child is hurt, regardless of the circumstances, someone is going to prison. If a child is killed, regardless of the circumstances, someone is either being executed or going to prison for life w/out parole. Guilt/innocence are irrelevant, the parents need "closure" over the loss of their preciou child.

It's futile.

Posted by: bruce | Nov 8, 2007 10:20:53 PM

Well, I could show you two communities in my state whose economies would be seriously damaged if their prisons closed. And I suspect there are a lot more.

I don't disagree with most of the points you're making. Drugs should be legalized and taxed. Guilt and innocence have become largely irrelevant in our societal rush to punish someone, anyone when something we don't like happens. We are all bamboozled by legislators who justify every counterproductive new law by "keeping our children safe." I don't believe, however, that the 19th amendment is responsible. Keeping women and children safe was a mantra long before women could vote. Indeed, protecting women's delicate sensibilities was part of the argument against letting them vote! Legislators will say whatever they think will get them elected, no matter how outrageous it is.

However, I don't buy your argument that nothing can be done. No, you as an attorney can't do it in front of a judge. But a large, organized lobby of prisoners' families, those who are against the drug laws, and others who believe our prison system is nuts might have an influence, both on educating the public and pressuring the powers that be. We need to follow the example of LEAP and get out there and talk to everyone we can. If Americans realize that "those people" are potentially all of us, we might begin to see a change.

Posted by: disillusioned layman | Nov 9, 2007 9:21:05 AM

"Keeping women and children safe was a mantra long before women could vote."

Yeah, on sinking boats. Not in the public discourse of every single law (particularly penal provisions). The only example I can think of were the anti-chinese/opium laws of the late 19th century in california and a few other locations, which were based on the fear of "white slavery" in that the chinese were getting our (white) women addicted to opium and keeping them as sex slaves in opium dens.

I challenge you to find one reference to "protecting the children" uttered by Lincoln or Douglas during their debates. Men just don't have the maternal instinct of putting children before everything else. Commerce, land, and capital were the most important political topics back before the 19th Amendment. When those were well-settled, the women and children would be fine. A politician who justified every single item of his platform on "protecting the children" would be laughed off the stump (by men).

Am I saying women are inferior or should have their right to vote taken away? No. But things would have been a lot better had they not been given the franchise in the first place. Sorry. As I said, it injected the maternal instinct into every aspect of politics, and that is an argument, much like "being for the troops" that one cannot oppose nor rebut.

Posted by: bruce | Nov 11, 2007 8:46:45 AM

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