The Second Chance Act

Note: This commentary was delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.

This year, an estimated 700,000 prisoners will be released from America's prisons. To put the number in perspective, that is an army three times the size of the United States Marine Corps.

To put it mildly, most of these offenders are not prepared to be good neighbors. As the former head of California's Department of Corrections puts it, "95 percent of the people who leave prison are ill prepared to return to society."

So it should not come as a surprise that, within three years of their release, two-thirds of these offenders will have been rearrested and half-that is right, 50 percent of them-back in prison. Nor should we be surprised that, across the county, law enforcement officials are concerned about the impact of these huge numbers of un-rehabilitated and unsupervised offenders coming back.

So, I am delighted to report to you that just this Tuesday, the Senate unanimously passed the Second Chance Act, which is now headed to President Bush's desk for signature.

As Chuck and I have previously reported on "BreakPoint," the Second Chance Act will improve the way our prisons prepare inmates to reenter society. It incorporates what our ministry, Prison Fellowship, has learned over the past 30 years in helping inmates successfully transform their lives.

The bill also provides grants to state and local governments to refocus their prisons on reentry-getting prisoners ready to come back. It funds drug treatment, mentoring, mental health, and family reunification programs.

Also promising are the grants that allow churches and community groups to recruit and train mentors to match with returning inmates. We here at Prison Fellowship know from experience that the matching of returning inmates with a loving, Christ-centered mentor is the key to successfully staying out of prison.

In fact, a 2003 University of Pennsylvania study of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (or, IFI) showed that mentoring ex-prisoners was indeed linked to lower rates of recidivism. Only 8 percent of IFI graduates were re-incarcerated within two years of their release. That was two and a half times better than the closest control group.

All of this, of course, created wide bipartisan support for the Second Chance Act-from the most conservative to the most liberal members of the Senate. But the bill's passage was no foregone conclusion.

That is why I am so grateful for the work of Pat Nolan at Justice Fellowship, which is the criminal justice reform arm of Prison Fellowship. He and many hundreds of individuals and organizations across the country worked patiently and tirelessly with members of the Senate and House to convince them to pass the Second Chance Act. This is a case where the public interest, principled conviction, and citizen advocacy combined to create sound, effective public policy. And we should all feel good about that.

Here is an idea: Sometimes on "BreakPoint," Chuck or I urge you to contact your representatives and senators to ask them to support one thing or another. This time, we would like to ask you to write or call your U.S. senators and thank them for voting for the Second Chance Act. They do, in fact, deserve our thanks on this one-and the thanks of many ex-offenders who may indeed now have a second chance.

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