Second Chance Act Signed Into Law, But Not Yet Funded
by Brandon Sample
On April 9, 2008, President Bush signed the Second Chance Act into law. The Second Chance Act (P.L. 110-199), a bi-partisan effort, was designed to expand and improve prisoner reentry programs with the goal of reducing recidivism.
The Act authorizes the expenditure of $362 million during 2009 and 2010 for a variety of initiatives, most of which are targeted at state prisoners. For example, the Act includes grants for mentoring and job training programs by nonprofit organizations for offenders released from prison; for the creation of state, local and tribal reentry courts; for drug treatment alternatives to incarceration, including family-based treatment for incarcerated parents; and for improvements in educational programs, including the establishment of a career project to train prisoners for technology-based jobs during the three-year period before their release.
The Act also calls for the development of a federal reentry initiative and pilot program that allows certain elderly federal prisoners to serve the remainder of their sentences on home confinement. Sex offenders are not eligible for this program.
Further, the Act amends 18 U.S.C. § 3624, authorizing the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to place a prisoner in a halfway house for up to one year before the end of their sentence, instead of the previous limit of six months. Unsurprisingly, the BOP is using this new authority very sparingly, limiting placement beyond six months to only those offenders who can demonstrate compelling and extraordinary circumstances.
The passage of the Second Chance Act comes at a time when the “number of ex-felons in the United States is at the highest in our history,” said Chris Uggen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. Uggen estimates there are about 12 million former felons living in the United States.
If existing statistics hold true, many of those ex-offenders will return to prison or jail within three years of their release. That is why “acquiring employment is crucial,” noted U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, a co-sponsor of the Act. “If they don’t get employment, many of these individuals will be back on the corner hollering ‘crack and blow.’“
The federal government offers employers a tax incentive of $2,400 to hire ex-offenders through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, and some municipalities, such as the City of Philadelphia, are following suit. In April 2008, Philadelphia announced a program offering employers a $10,000 tax incentive for every former prisoner they hire. “We need employers to set up and give them an opportunity to show everyone they can be good employees,” stated Everett Gillison, the city’s deputy mayor for public safety. “These people are trying to turn their lives around and stay crime free.”
Despite such incentives, most employers remain reluctant to hire ex-offenders. And there are generally few, if any, employment protections for former felons, according to Diana Johnston of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Some courts have ruled that an employer that has a broad practice of excluding people from all jobs because they have had an arrest or conviction has a disparate impact on African-Americans,” she explains. “A similar impact may apply to Hispanics.” In most cases, though, employers can discriminate against job seekers with criminal records.
The Second Chance Act, through the National Adult and Juvenile Offender Reentry Resource Center, will study barriers to reentry like those encountered by ex-prisoners seeking employment. However, the work of the Reentry Resource Center, along with many of the Act’s other provisions, has yet to benefit anyone. While the Act was passed by Congress and signed into law, it has yet to be funded.
On September 26, 2008, over six dozen national and local organizations, ranging from the American Jail Association and Human Rights Watch to International CURE and Prison Fellowship, issued a joint letter urging Congress to fund the Second Chance Act. [PLN was one of the signatory organizations]
“I will be working with my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee to make certain that the Second Chance Act has the funding to enable community and faith-based organizations to deliver needed services,” stated U.S. Senator Sam Brownback.
By the end of the last fiscal year in October 2008, however, funds for the Second Chance Act had not been appropriated. But there is still hope, as both the House and Senate have included funding for the Act in their current appropriation bills, in the proposed amounts of $45 million and $20 million, respectively. Those bills must be considered before March 2009.
Should the appropriation bills fail to pass and Congress instead issues a continuing resolution for federal funding, then the Act would not receive funds during the first year of its two-year authorization. If funding is appropriated, the U.S. Department of Justice plans to release grant solicitations to state and local governments beginning in March, followed by grants available to non-profit organizations.
While the Second Chance Act has been praised by advocates for criminal justice reform, if Congress fails to fund the Act, or provides only minimal funding, then it will be a largely inconsequential feel-good gesture. Meanwhile, the BOP has requested an additional $67.1 million in fiscal year 2009 to expand available prison capacity.
Sources: www.reentrypolicy.org, www.jointogether.org
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