America imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world. That statement holds true if you're talking about percentage of the population or looking at sheer numbers. We've known this for a while. We knew it when the Pew Center for the States released its latest report on the issue, Feb. 28. Yes, the U.S. justice system has been building ever more prisons and locking up record numbers of people for decades. Men of color are worst affected: one in nine African American males between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars.
If these facts raise your blood pressure, you're not alone. Black leaders and activists from across the spectrum are searching for a solution. What can we do? Put an end to mandatory minimum sentencing? Increase funding for educational opportunities in prison and in society? Decriminalize drug use?
None of these controversial proposals are in the works so far. But now awaiting the president's signature is a bill that many criminal justice reformers say is a step in the right direction: the Second Chance Act. Passed by overwhelming majority in the U.S. House and Senate, the Act falls short of mandating any kind of change, yet advocates say it does lay a foundation for meaningful reform.
"I'd like to think it's a step in the right direction," said David Rogers, executive director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice (formerly the Western Prison Project). "Over 650,000 are being released every year. … At some point we have to come to terms with criminal sentencing schemes that are unjust."
The Act attempts to use grant programs to turn around the nation's recidivism rates (the rates at which ex-offenders reenter prison after being released). Some grants will focus on neighborhoods with a disproportionate number of ex-offenders. Among the many areas of reform the Act intends to explore include:
• Planning to help prisoners find work, housing, education, treatment, health care, etc., before their release into the community.
• Taking another look at the kinds of parole and probation violations that result in people going back to jail, especially minor or technical violations, and violations that are not against the law.
• Funding for residential drug treatment away from regular jail population.
• Funding for Alternative Drug Treatment Courts; incentives for nonviolent parent offenders.
• Improving educational and vocational programs in prisons and jails; assessing inmates skills.
• Encouraging employers to hire ex-offenders;
• Putting elderly, non-violent offenders on home detention;
• Researching what exactly helps or hinders the successful reintegration of ex-offenders into society.
The Second-Chance Act takes aim at the back end of the country's mass incarceration dilemma. That's less than half the problem, activists say.
"We have to address the question of 'why are so many people being incarcerated in the first place?'" Rogers said. "In some ways, America is unique in using incarceration as (its only) response to crime."
Aside from his criticism, Rogers says focusing on the problem of re-entry is a good place to start. Finding employment and housing with a criminal record is difficult, to put it mildly – the Act's authors say 60 percent of ex-offenders are unemployed after one year of being released from prison, while up to 27 percent expect to go to a homeless shelter upon their release.
So in an age of instant background checks, where do ex-offenders go to get back on their feet after being institutionalized? Some find themselves at the Central City Concern, a nonprofit agency that provides all the services many need when reintegrating into society – housing, employment, education, health care, etc. Executive Director Ed Blackburn says a lot of the people they help have criminal backgrounds and finding life's basic building blocks – a roof over your head and a job – takes a lot of work by the agency's caseworkers and the ex-offenders themselves. Often, it takes a one-on-one relationship with employers to secure a job for someone exiting prison.
"When employers feel they have a person that has skills and has support behind them (ex-offenders get the job)," he said.
In Portland other released prisoners turn to the nonprofit Better People, which helps ex-offenders find jobs. Executive director, Clariner Boston, says any amount of funding for re-entry is well spent, because the need is so great. Boston's greatest challenge is helping people who have been convicted of a crime that qualifies as violent. Many re-entry grant programs exclude so-called violent criminals. Yet this is precisely the group of ex-offenders who need services the most. That's if they are to have any hope of turning their lives around and staying out of trouble.
"It's going to leave a lot of people out of the loop," she said.
Solving this country's mass incarceration problem by focusing on those coming out of prison is a step in the right direction, Boston says.
"Can you imagine what it's like coming out of prison after 5 or 10 years …," she said. "Seeing a cell phone for the first time … adjusting to how society, rules and culture have changed …"
Boston said we have to examine the circumstances that land people in prison in the first place — the lack of opportunity and education, the substance abuse problems, learning disabilities, the mental illness – if we want to live in communities that are free of crime.
We can't legislate social change by locking away the problem, she said. "(These problems) aren't going to go away because we capture, incarcerate and punish them."