Another Chance for the Second Chance Act
Pain-relief medication may seem like the perfect solution to a throbbing headache, an aching back, or a sensitive tooth, but the use of such medication merely masks the true cause of the pain: perhaps dehydration, poor posture or a cavity, respectively. While these drugs may appear to be a cure-all, they allow individuals to overlook the source of the pain, often increasing the risk of exacerbating the original problem. This analogy helps to explain the detrimental effects of the recent decision made by the Senate Committee on Appropriations to completely eliminate funding for the Second Chance Act in the Fiscal Year 2012 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill.
Signed by President George W. Bush in 2008, the Second Chance Act aims to curb recidivism, the phenomenon in which criminals released from jail return to a life of crime. Through grants to state and local governments and nonprofit organizations, Second Chance Act funds are invested in programs that facilitate ex-offenders’ re-entry into society, thereby diminishing the likelihood that they will return to crime and, in turn, increasing public safety while decreasing government spending on prisons. Such reintegration services include substance abuse treatment, mentoring, mental health services, vocational training and housing assistance. In Fiscal Year 2011, the act received $83 million, a slight reduction from the $100 million it received the previous Fiscal Year. Nonetheless, despite President Obama’s request for a $100 million allocation to the act in Fiscal Year 2012, the Senate Committee on Appropriations has denied any resources to this law.
The alternative to taking measures to prevent recidivism is taking measures to respond to the issue, namely building more prisons to accommodate the growing number of criminals that are overcrowding the cells. This seems to be what the Senate Committee on Appropriations has reasoned, as it granted an additional $307 million to the Bureau of Prisons, a portion of which is dedicated to the “activation of new prisons.” This allocation is tantamount to taking a pain reliever. Rather than resolving the root causes of the problem (barriers to successful re-integration), building more facilities only temporarily eases the overcrowding crisis, until the new prisons become so congested that additional jails must be constructed with additional government spending. Such a perpetuating cycle is emblematic of excessive dependence on medication, as the cause of the problem is never addressed in the first place – it is only masked – and more and more pills are needed to numb the pain.
At a time when the national deficit threatens cuts to important government programs, it is imperative that the limited resources are utilized in the most efficient manner. According to Department of Justice statistics, $228 billion was expended for the three major components of the criminal justice system (police, corrections and judicial) in the year 2007 alone, an increase of $148 billion since 1982. More than 700,000 individuals are released from federal and state prisons every year, with an additional 9 million cycling through local jails. If those rates continue, state and federal prisons will grow by 13 percent in the next two years, resulting in more than 192,000 additional prisoners at a cost of $27.5 billion. Furthermore, a 1994 Department of Justice study found that 2/3 of released inmates were rearrested for “at least one serious new crime” within three years of their release.
Such a cycle is anything but fiscally efficient, especially if individuals are processed through the criminal justice system multiple times. The economic burden could be lightened, however, with the sustained implementation of programs that provide ex-criminals with the tools necessary for successful reintegration into society, such as those funded by the Second Chance Act – not to mention that successful reintegration improves the lives of released prisoners.
We urge the Senate Committee on Appropriations to invest resources in programs that prevent crime, rather than provide new funding for the federal Bureau of Prisons. In the interest of debt reduction and public safety, the Second Chance Act should be given a chance to break the cycle of recidivism.