ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

May 31, 2005

Each year, more than 630,000 people are released each year from corrections institutions in the United States. Not surprisingly, people who have been locked up for many years, and are often poorly educated and lack financial support, face a range of obstacles to re-entering society. Yet some of the biggest are put there by federal, state and local governments, including barriers to student loans, public housing and other forms of government assistance.

For years, the thinking among law-enforcement officials and politicians was that this was the price people should pay for breaking the law. Now there is an emerging belief that the larger price is being borne by society, since the practical barriers facing ex-prisoners make it more likely that they will slip back into a life of crime.

For example:

  • An estimated two-thirds of ex-felons return to prison within three years of their release for new crimes or for probation/parole violations.
  • U.S. taxpayers spent $60 billion on corrections in 2002 at the local, state and federal levels, up $9 billion from the previous two decades.
  • Corrections has also been documented as the second-fastest-growing government spending category after health care.

In addition to the housing problem, educational attempts are also blocked by laws barring loans to ex-cons. The most frustrating barrier -- getting a legitimate ID card, such as a driver's license -- leaves ex-convicts with the feeling of not being wanted, says Debbie Mukamal, director of the prisoner re-entry institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

In response, politicians have introduced the Second Chance Act that will provide more than $80 million in grants for programs to help ex-felons re-enter society. This might help ex-cons fulfill the requirements of their release: find a job in 15 days or face the possibility of returning to prison.

Source: Gary Fields, "After Prison Boom, A Focus on Hurdles Faced by Ex-Cons," Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2005.

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