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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008, 10:10 am

Second chance for Second Chance Act?

By Natasha Eziquiel-Shriro
According to the U.S. Justice Department, close to 2/3 of prisoners released annually from state and federal prisons re-offend or violate conditions of their release -- that's right, 67.5% of our nation's convicts return to the slammer within just three years.

After several years of congressional delay, and thanks to mounting public attention and bipartisan support, the Second Chance Act of 2007, a bill to assist former prisoners reenter communities, finally passed in April 2008. Reintroduced to the 110th Congress by Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), the legislation calls for close to $180 million a year in 2009 and 2010 to fund prisoner re-entry services meant to curb recidivism. From pre-release advising, to temporary housing, job training, and family counseling, advocates and legislators behind this bill have created a comprehensive plan to help the 690,000 people released each year from our nation's burgeoning prison system.

It's a huge feat that this bill has passed, and that public support for ex-offender services is surpassing the turned-head ethic that has so far fated disenfranchised, lower-income and minority communities to incarceration during the prison boom of the recent 40 years.

Yet while many are applauding this step forward, advocacy groups like the Re-entry Policy Council have a lot more work to do --- Congress has yet to actually commit funds to the programs authorized through the Second Chance Act. According to Dominic Lackey, who works with the Reentry Policy Council and the Council of State Government's Justice Center, the legislation authorizes a $55 million grant program to state and local governments as well as $15 million for mentoring and transitional services -- programs that have a real chance of getting off the ground.

"Several key members of Congress, including Representatives Davis, Cannon, and Coble and Senators Biden, Brownback, Leahy, Specter and Kennedy have voiced their support of funding at least the demonstration and mentoring programs."

To date, over 200 student, advocacy, faith-based and community groups have signed on in support of pushing Congress to fund this bill. "Over the past month, members of state and local governments and community leaders have submitted hundreds of letters to Congress requesting that funding be included for the Second Chance Act programs," the Re-entry Policy Council recently said.

The deeper problem is not an issue of whether or not Congress cares about ex-offenders, but that no spending bills have been able to pass thanks to long-standing debates over war-funding appropriations. Due to this perpetual conflict, it's likely no new programs will receive funding this year. Grassroots efforts to pin down dollars for this monumental legislation depend on momentum that might dwindle once the summer hits, and also since popular political focus is shifting to the voter mobilizing efforts around the presidential election.

Natasha Eziquiel-Sriro is an In These Times editorial intern.

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