Editorial: The Second Chance Act Proves Its Worth

The New York Times

By The Editorial Board

With corrections costs exceeding $60 billion a year, state and local governments are rightly focused on making sure that newly released prisoners stay out of jail instead of coming back in through a revolving door.

The Second Chance Act, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2008, was designed to give momentum to this effort, providing money and training for states, local governments and nonprofit organizations to help former prisoners readjust to the community. But as it stands, federal government spending on Second Chance Act programs amounts to less than $100 a year for each newly released prisoner — far less than the programs need and deserve.

A new study from the National Reentry Resource Center, created under the Second Chance Act, shows that recidivism rates can be significantly reduced when states commit to jailing only people who present a risk to public safety and to helping newly released prisoners find drug treatment, psychiatric counseling and the other services they need for a successful transition to the world beyond bars.

The report compared the three-year recidivism rates for people released in 2007 to those of people released in 2010 for eight states — Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Wisconsin — and found that the percentage declines in recidivism rates ranged from 5.8 percent in Colorado to 19.3 percent in North Carolina.

North Carolina, for example, learned that probation revocations accounted for half of its prison admissions and that three-quarters of those sent to prison based on such revocations had not committed new offenses. The State Legislature enacted sweeping reforms. It intensified community supervision, and it gave probation officers better training and allowed them to use other sanctions for people who violated the rules, like punishing them with two or three days in the local jail instead of sending them back to prison for lengthy stays.

The state also established local re-entry councils that direct newly released inmates to social services to help them readjust to the community. The new measures drove down recidivism, allowing North Carolina to close nine correctional facilities, hire more probation officers and lend more support to drug treatment and other transitional programs.

The Second Chance Act has a crucial role to play by providing seed money for new reforms and helping to distinguish what works from what does not. Given the scope of the task at hand — and the fact that 700,000 people will be released from prison this year — the federal government should be spending far more than the $67.7 million that went for this purpose in the 2014 fiscal year. A higher level of expenditure would more than pay for itself in terms of lower corrections costs.