Going Beyond 'New Clothes and a Five Dollar Bill'

April 23, 2007

by Martin Magnusson, Editor-at-Large

There are currently over two million Americans behind bars. This figure gives the United States the dubious distinction of having the largest prison population in the world; the United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. It also has a higher per-capita incarceration rate than any other nation in the world. The costs of America's mass incarceration are staggering: the cost of incarcerating one person in a federal prison, for instance, tops $23,000. This works out to an annual federal prison cost of five billion dollars. The state prisons' annual costs exceed thirty billion dollars.

The American mass incarceration is not only characterized by its size and economic cost. As Jason DeParle recently argued in the New York Times book review, the composition of America's prison population indicates troubling racial and economic disparities:

Everyone is affected, but not equally. Black men in their early thirties are imprisoned at seven times the rate of whites in the same age group. Whites with only a high school education get locked up twenty times as often as those with college degrees.

Another upshot of America's large prison population is that every year, 650,000 ex-offenders are released. Keeping these ex-offenders out of the criminal justice system is a vital first step in addressing the incarceration crisis currently facing the United States. Unfortunately, recidivism in the United States is quite high; two-thirds of released inmates are likely to be rearrested within three years. 

According to a bipartisan group of legislators co-sponsoring an act to address recidivism, released inmates struggle to reintegrate into society without the benefit of addiction counseling, housing or even a job. Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) recently noted, “We can no longer release prisoners with new clothes and a five dollar bill, and expect them to become good citizens.” Rep. Forbes was speaking at a hearing on the Second Chance Act of 2007, which would provide reentry funding at the state and local level. These funds would improve ex-offenders' access to housing, mental health/substance abuse treatment, education and employment.

The 2006 version of the Second Chance Act failed when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) put it on a hold during the last week of the 2006 legislative term. The result is that the bill never made it to the floor for debate. Sen. Coburn objected to the bill as fiscally irresponsible: 

The Second Chance Act . . . contains new federal spending totaling $243 million without a source of funding. If we cannot make the tough spending choices now, we should not ask the next generation of Americans to pay the bill. Each American taxpayer owes more than $26,000 on our $8.7 trillion national debt. Rather than add new money for duplicative programs, Congress should do what families with limited resources do every day and prioritize spending.

Sen. Coburn's concerns are not shared by Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-OH), who argues that any additional costs will be offset by the economic benefits of reduced recidivism: 

Prisoner reentry is not a partisan issue. It is a common sense issue. The facts are clear -- meaningful reentry programs significantly diminish the chance that ex-offenders will return to prison. These programs save taxpayer dollars and increase public safety. So why not invest in enhancing reentry services in order to end the cycle of recidivism?

Perhaps most notable about the current bill is its bipartisan support. The Senate bill's sponsors range the political spectrum from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS). The New York Times Magazine recently ran an article about the bill's previous iteration, noting that it represents a departure from the familiar “tough on crime” mantra: 

[A]s a symbolic political gesture, the Second Chance Act completely reverses recent practice. For the first time in decades, Congress is poised to pass a bill that aims to make the lives of prisoners and ex-prisoners easier, not more difficult. In the 1990s, Democratic and Republican Congresses scrapped the Pell Grant program for prisoners, barred drug offenders from receiving federal student loans and cut highway money for states that did not revoke or suspend the driver’s licenses of drug felons. Now leading politicians of both parties are proposing that states remove laws and regulations that wall off the ex-criminal class from the community.

The Second Chance Act of 2007 is moving forward quickly. Just a week after its introduction, the House Judiciary Committee passed it. The bill will now be sent to the House floor for consideration. The Senate has already introduced its bill.