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July 2, 2007 - New York Times (NY)

Editorial: A Much-Needed Second Chance

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The United States now has more than two million people behind bars, a number that has been rising steadily for decades.

But state lawmakers who once would have rushed to build new prisons have begun to see that prison-building is not the best or most cost-effective way to fight crime or protect the public's safety.

Several states have instead begun to focus on developing community-based programs that deal with low-level, nonviolent offenders without locking them up.

And they have begun to look at ways to control recidivism with programs that help newly released people find jobs, housing, drug treatment and mental health care -- essential services if they are to live viable lives in a society that has historically shunned them.

Texas and Kansas have recently made important strides in this area.

But corrections policy nationally would evolve much faster if Washington put its shoulder to the wheel.

Congress needs to pass the Second Chance Act, which would provide grants, guidance and assistance to states and localities that are developing programs to reintegrate former inmates into their communities.

The states have made a good start, thanks in part to the efforts of the Council of State Governments and its prison policy arm, the Justice Center.

The center's analysis of corrections patterns has led to sweeping changes in Texas, where the Legislature was facing a projected upsurge in the prison population and a projected outlay of more than a billion dollars to build several new prisons.

The surge in Texas was not being driven by crime, which had risen only slightly, but by a breakdown in the parole and probation systems, which were unable to process and supervise the necessary numbers of released prisoners.

Mental health and drug treatment services were also lacking. By expanding those services, along with other community-based programs, the Legislature projects that it could potentially avoid the need for any new prisons.

A similar solution was found in Kansas, where about 65 percent of the state's admissions to prison were traced to technical violations of probation or parole, often by people with drug addictions or mental illnesses.

The Legislature has expanded drug treatment behind bars and created a grant program that encourages localities to provide more effective supervision and services as a way of keeping recently released people away from crime and out of prison.

The social service networks that are necessary for this kind of work are virtually nonexistent in most communities.

To put those networks together, the states need to require that disparate parts of the government apparatus work together in ways that were unheard of in the past.

It is encouraging that state officials are willing to break out of the old patterns. But they need help.

The Second Chance Act would bolster the re-entry movement with money, training, technical assistance -- and the federal stamp of approval.

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