On occasion, the U.S. Congress works together in a bipartisan manner to find practical solutions to a vexing problem. This week, Congress will decide whether to pass the Second Chance Act, a bill that fits that description perfectly.
The problem addressed by the Second Chance Act is vexing indeed: people returning from prisons and jails to our communities, without adequate preparation. Each year more than 600,000 Americans are released from prisons, having paid their debt to society for their crimes. Many times that number are released from local jails.
People re-entering society from jail or prison can become productive citizens, if they are prepared with a place to live, a job, treatment for addiction, and a simple mentoring program often undertaken by a local church. Unfortunately, without this preparation, many are unable to make the transition (often becoming homeless in the process), and they commit new crimes and return to prison. Every failed re-entry means more crime, victims, and waste of lives and taxpayer dollars.
The Second Chance Act would make a big difference. The idea was born almost three years ago, after President Bush called for more attention to this problem. The proposed act recognizes that the federal government has spent billions of dollars to help states build prisons and send people there who have committed crimes. It would help states finish the job by preparing people who have served their time to re-enter their communities.
The bill would provide:
• Grants to state corrections agencies (particularly helpful for states like Oklahoma whose low tax base means that funding these initiatives without federal participation squeezes local and state taxpayers).
• Better know-how through research and assistance.
• Grants to local faith-based and community organizations for effective mentoring programs.
There is no other source of federal funding that combines the flexibility and focus on solutions to this problem that the Second Chance Act would provide.
The Second Chance Act is backed by an extraordinary range of people and organizations. President Bush is strongly supportive. Cosponsors in Congress include members across the ideological spectrum. Organizations that support the Second Chance Act range from the Christian Coalition and the Conservative Union to liberal civil rights groups, and include all those whose interest is in practical solutions to the problem of re-entry: police officers, corrections officials, prosecutors, and of course those of us concerned with homelessness. Director Justin Jones of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has spoken out about the importance of the bill.
The one key person still expressing opposition to the Second Chance Act is Sen. Tom Coburn. His staff has raised specific issues with the bill’s sponsors, who have worked hard to address his concerns. Yet his staff has indicated that he may take steps that would stop the bill.
Under the rules of the U.S. Senate, one senator can slow the progress of a bill to a crawl. Since the 109th Congress will adjourn for good at the end of this week, the ability to slow a bill now becomes the ability to stop it single-handedly. The House of Representatives is poised to pass the Second Chance Act if the Senate passes it. And so it comes down to this — this practical bill, providing important assistance to Oklahoma and other states to solve this problem, will either pass or not pass depending on what Sen. Coburn does over the next couple days.
We, along with a host of others, hope Coburn sees fit to support this piece of legislation. We need practical solutions to real problems, and that is what the Second Chance Act provides.
Nan Roman is president of National Alliance to End Homelessness.