President Bush yesterday reached across traditional political dividing lines to sign into law a broad program that provides federal grants for assistance to ex-convicts, pointing to his own struggle with alcohol addiction as an example of redemption.
The Second Chance Act represents a bit of accommodation by Bush during his final months in office, even as his relations with congressional Democrats continue to deteriorate over Iraq war policy, housing assistance and, as of yesterday, an apparently doomed Colombian trade agreement.
During a signing ceremony at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the president was flanked by lawmakers from both parties, including frequent foe John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), a key backer of the bill.
"We believe that even those who have struggled with a dark past can find brighter days ahead," Bush said in his remarks, which included numerous references to renewal and a brief mention of his own vow years ago to quit drinking.
The new law has broad support among prisoner advocacy groups, liberal criminal-justice organizations, and many Democrats who otherwise differ with Bush or his policies. It grew out of at least five years of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans, partly about the participation of religious organizations in counseling financed by Washington, according to administration officials, lawmakers and others involved in the process.
The law would provide $326 million in grants to local governments and nonprofit groups for various programs aimed at departing or former convicts, including housing and medical assistance, drug treatment and employment services. Appropriations for the grants still await approval by Congress and Bush, however.
The compromise allows "faith-based" nonprofit groups to receive grants but would not include direct participation by churches, temples or other purely religious entities, officials said.
Davis, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who has represented his Chicago district since 1997, said a compromise was reached because both Democrats and Republicans agree that more needs to be done to accommodate the 650,000 people released from U.S. prisons and jails each year.
"I've been talking to the president for a good little while about this," Davis said. "We knew all along that conceptually, the White House was in agreement, but we needed to work on the details and technicalities."
Since his 2000 election campaign, Bush has billed himself as a "compassionate conservative" and has made faith-based programs a central part of his domestic policy agenda.
At the same time, the administration has advocated longer prison sentences for many crimes over the last seven years. It also strongly opposes new guidelines from the U.S. Sentencing Commission reducing sentences for those convicted of crack-cocaine-related crimes, many of whom were black and were given far longer prison terms than whites convicted of using powder cocaine.
Current and former White House aides characterize Bush's approach as a marriage of get-tough sentencing policies with sympathy for those who have made mistakes, often because of alcohol or drug addiction. James Towey, who served as Bush's director of faith-based initiatives from 2002 to 2006, noted that aspects of the Second Chance Act are based on pilot programs that Bush announced in 2004.
"He is deeply touched by these stories of transformation," said Towey, now president of Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto compared Bush's support of the Second Chance Act to administration initiatives to combat AIDS and malaria in the developing world, efforts to combine a moral goal with pragmatic concerns.
"It's the confluence of a belief in the power of redemption, which is something that he feels strongly about, and the practical side of it," Fratto said. "He doesn't believe our prisons should be crime factories."
Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said she supports the prisoner reentry initiative, but she hopes that Bush will also begin focusing on easing sentencing policies that have led to record incarceration rates.
"If we're concerned [about] people coming out of prison, maybe we should think about how many people are going to prison in the first place," Stewart said. "This is the back end of the problem. We need to look at the front end."
At the end of yesterday's ceremony, Bush made an oblique reference to his past drinking and said his sobriety is a "product of a faith-based program," albeit not a government-sponsored one.
Bush has frequently referred to a drinking problem that he overcame at age 40, but many details remain obscured. He has often used his history with alcohol as a symbol of the ability to overcome mistakes or hardship. "I quit drinking -- and it wasn't because of a government program," Bush said. "It required a little more powerful force than a government program, in my case."
April 9, 2008 White House News Release (US)
President Bush Signs H.R. 1593, the Second Chance Act of 2007
Room 350, Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building
White House News, 10:31 A.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thanks for coming. I'm about to sign a piece of legislation that will help give prisoners across America a second chance for a better life. This bill is going to support the caring men and women who help America's prisoners find renewal and hope.
I can't thank the folks who care enough about a fellow citizen to offer their love and compassion. It's through the acts of mercy that compassionate Americans are making the nation a more hopeful place, and I want to thank you all for joining us today.
And I thank the members of Congress who have joined us as well: Senator Arlen Specter, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee; Chairman Joe Biden -- not of the Judiciary Committee --
SENATOR BIDEN: Thank God. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: -- but of Foreign Relations; but a key member of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Sam Brownback, as well. So we've got three United States senators here and I'm honored they are here. Members of the United States Congress: Chairman of the House Judiciary, John Conyers, and ranking member Lamar Smith. I want to thank you all for coming.
I appreciate very much Danny Davis joining us, as well -- bill sponsor. I want to thank Jim Sensenbrenner and Bobby Scott and Howard Coble and Chris Cannon. All good members and all members who worked hard to get this piece of legislation here in a timely fashion.
I thank the Attorney General, Judge Michael Mukasey, for joining us, as well; Elaine Chao, thank you for coming, Madam Secretary; Rob Portman, former Director of the OMB; and all the supporters of the Second Chance legislation. Thanks for caring about your country, thanks for working on this piece of legislation.
The country was built on the belief that each human being has limitless potential and worth. Everybody matters. We believe that even those who have struggled with a dark past can find brighter days ahead. One way we act on that belief is by helping former prisoners who've paid for their crimes -- we help them build new lives as productive members of our society.
The work of redemption reflects our values. It also reflects our national interests. Each year, approximately 650,000 prisoners are released from jail. Unfortunately, an estimated two-thirds of them are rearrested within three years. The high recidivism rate places a huge financial burden on taxpayers, it deprives our labor force of productive workers, and it deprives families of their daughters and sons, and husbands and wives, and moms and dads.
Our government has a responsibility to help prisoners to return as contributing members of their community. But this does not mean that the government has all the answers. Some of the most important work to help ex-convicts is done outside of Washington, D.C., in faith-based communities and community-based groups. It's done on streets and small town community centers. It's done in churches and synagogues and temples and mosques.
I like to call the folks who are engaged in this compassionate work, "members of the armies of compassion." They help addicts and users break the chains of addiction. They help former prisoners find a ride to work and a meal to eat and place to stay. These men and women are answering the call to love their neighbors as they'd like to be loved themselves. And in the process, they're helping prisoners replace anger and suffering and despair with faith and hope and love.
The bill I'm signing today, the Second Chance Act of 2007, will build on work to help prisoners reclaim their lives. In other words, it basically says: We're standing with you, not against you.
First, the act will authorize important parts of the administration's Prison Re-entry Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to help America's prisoners by expanding job training and placement services, improving their ability to find transitional housing, and helping newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups.
The past three years, congressional appropriations have supported the work in 20 states through a series of pilot programs awarded to community and faith-based organizations by the U.S. Department of Labor. The early efforts have fielded promising results. In the first two years of the program, more than 12,800 offenders have enrolled in the prisoner re-entry program. More 7,900 have been placed in jobs. Only 18 percent of those enrolled in the program have been arrested again within a year -- that's less than half the national average. We like to measure results, and the results of these pilot programs are very encouraging.
With the legislation I'll sign today, Congress has recognized the success of this good policy, and I thank them for their good work. Secondly, the act will support the Justice Department's ongoing work to help our nation's prisoners. This bill will help state and local governments, and Indian tribes, and non-profit groups implement programs that will improve the prisoner re-entry process.
These programs will provide further -- former prisoners with essential services, like housing and medical care. It will help develop prisoner drug treatment programs; support prisoner mentoring initiatives. It will support family counseling and other services to help prisoners re-establish their place in the community.
In both these ways, the Second Chance Act will live up to its name; will help ensure that where the prisoner's spirit is willing, the community's resources are available. It will help our armies of compassion use their healing touch so lost souls can rediscover their dignity and sense of purpose.
I recently went to a program in Baltimore, Maryland, called Jericho. I met a man there who has kindly joined us today named Thomas Boyd. He's 53 years old. He spent more than 20 years of his life using drugs and going back and forth to jail. He remembers the day when his daughter sat down, looked him in the eye and said, "Daddy, I think it's time for you to start doing something with your life."
He took his daughter's advice. He sought out the Jericho re-entry program, which is supported by the Re-entry Initiative. When I visited the program, I tried to remind them that the least shall be first. I also reminded him I was a product of a faith-based program. I quit drinking -- and it wasn't because of a government program. It required a little more powerful force than a government program in my case.
And he told me that he appreciates the love and compassion he felt -- feels on a regular basis. He's working, back with his family; he's a good guy. And I want to thank you for coming, Thomas. (Applause.)
I want to thank you for coming, Thomas. There's a lot of other Thomases out there that we're going to help with this bill. And so I thank the members of Congress for joining us. Thanks for your hard work. I thank the members of my administration who are going to see to it that the bill is implemented properly.
And now it is my honor to sign this important piece of legislation. May God bless the country, and may God bless those who are trying to help. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
(The bill is signed.) (Applause.)
END 10:38 A.M. EDT
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