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January 14, 2005 - The Wall Street Journal (US)

Congress Prepares To Tackle Prisoner Recidivism

Lawmakers Plan for Bipartisan Measures After Report Offers Advice For Overhaul

By Gary Fields, Staff Reporter

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WASHINGTON - Lawmakers from both parties, concerned about high recidivism and the costs it imposes on society, are expected to soon introduce legislation aimed at helping ex-convicts stay on the straight and narrow when they leave prison.

The effort will get a boost from the Supreme Court ruling Wednesday that declared federal sentencing guidelines are only advisory. Though the decision will spur a battle in Congress over mandating sentences versus giving judges more discretion, leaders in both parties support sound programs that prevent ex-offenders from slipping back into crime.

Yesterday, a sweeping government-funded report outlined a series of recommendations to overhaul prisoner re-entry. According to the report, of the 650,000 people released annually from state and federal prisons, 70% will commit new crimes within three years.

If the Supreme Court ruling results in prison sentences getting shorter, "people will be put back on the streets sooner and that makes prisoner re-entry services even more important," says Rep. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican. If penalties get tougher, he says, "then you have people who will be disconnected from society who will need re-entry services even more."

Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, plans to reintroduce the Second Chance Act, a bill that had the support of several influential Republican and Democratic lawmakers last summer but didn't get to a full committee vote as Congress focused on spending and intelligence bills.

"We've got a broken corrections system," Sen. Brownback says. "It needs to be reinvented, much as we found with welfare in the 1990s. Recidivism rates are too high and create too much of a financial burden on states without protecting public safety."

According to the report compiled by the Re-Entry Policy Council, spending on corrections has increased more than any other major spending category in the last 15 years, with the exception of health-care costs. U.S. taxpayers spent $60 billion on corrections in 2002, up from $9 billion two decades before. The council is comprised of a range of national associations; its report received funding from the U.S. departments of Justice, Labor and Health and Human Services and coordinated by the Council of State Governments.

Should recidivism rates remain high, the cost could continue to rise dramatically as prisons open their doors to populations that have been boosted by the mandatory minimum sentences and tougher guidelines penalties. The nation's jail and prison population has risen to 2.2 million from 501,886 in 1980, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Annual criminal-justice expenditures for police, prisons, probation and courts have risen to $167 billion from $36 billion in 1982.

The 678-page report says that the vast majority of offenders returning from federal and state prisons aren't receiving the help they need before their release from prison to address the problems they have.

The issue even arose last week during the confirmation hearing of Alberto Gonzales, who has been nominated to be attorney general. When several senators expressed a need for establishing re-entry programs that cut recidivism and incarceration rates, Mr. Gonzales agreed. "I think that we have an obligation to provide some kind of support structure, to provide some kind of training to people that are coming out of prison," he said. "It's the right thing to do."

Congressional staffers say support still is strong for grants to programs dealing with issues like postrelease housing, health services, education and job training. Under legislation that has been discussed, employers would be educated on incentives available if they hire ex-offenders. In addition, Congress would study how various state regulations would affect the children of incarcerated parents.

Among the report's key recommendations: identify where released prisoners are returning, because they often return to specific neighborhoods where services can be concentrated; identify funds that can be used for reintegration programs; and develop a plan for each prisoner providing specific services during incarceration that will make the transition home more successful.

Mike Thompson, director of criminal-justice programs at the Council of State Governments, says the report and the bipartisan cooperation are an acknowledgment that after years of building more prisons and locking up more people, everyone has concluded "we're spending good money after bad" without lowering the recidivism rate.

Although 75% of those released from incarceration have substance-abuse problems, only 10% of them get formal treatment prior to release. Ex-convicts also face considerable hurdles in obtaining identification or getting state licenses in occupations for which training is offered in prison.

Rep. Danny Davis, an Illinois Democrat, says that in his district ex-offenders are prohibited from living in public housing, which means they often can't return to their families. Nearly 60 job titles licensed by the state, such as barber, require ex-offenders to get waivers and "getting a waiver is similar to trying to get something expunged," he says.

And getting the waiver may not be enough. Rep. Davis recalled a man trained in prison as a barber who had gotten a license waiver and found someone willing to hire him, but he didn't have the money for his barbering tools. Mr. Davis says he gave him the money out of his pocket. "To my vindication, the brother came back with my change and the receipts for what he'd bought," Mr. Davis said.

One state that is being held up as a possible model is Kansas. That state's secretary of corrections, Roger Werholtz, says Kansas is in the second year of a pilot project in Shawnee County, where the state capitol is located. It includes identifying inmates a year prior to release and developing a re-entry program that focuses on where ex-convicts will live, what jobs they might be trained to pursue and what employers in their neighborhoods might be interested in hiring them.

"Most of the guys come out with good intentions and high hopes, but ill-equipped to deal with not just the routine barriers that you and I would face but all the additional barriers that are put in place because of their criminal history," he says.

Although it is too early to have firm statistics, Mr. Werholtz said anecdotal evidence suggests the trend towards reoffending is being reversed.

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