Second Chance Act giving ex-offenders hope

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By Rebecca Laflure and John Santore

Medill News Service

When he was a young child growing up on Chicago's West side, Roy Pierson promised himself that he would resist the lure of drugs and gangs.

But by high school, he was stealing CDs and gym shoes from train carts. At 17, he was charged with auto theft — the first of a string of felonies that took him in and out of prison for 25 years.

Pierson fell into the same cycle each time he was released from prison. He would return to the same neighborhood, where he was raised, grow frustrated with a lack of money and places to live. He once again resorted to selling drugs again. The issue was compounded by his struggles to stay sober.

Now out of prison for more than a year and living in A Safe Haven sober living community, Pierson, 44, is trying hard not to return.

"This transition is about my children," said Pierson, who works as a prep cook at Hecky's Barbecue, a restaurant in Evanston owned by Hecky Powell. "I really appreciate Mr. Hecky because he gave me an opportunity. He's building up my hope that if you work hard you can redeem yourself."

The revolving door of ex-offenders going in and out of prison remains a major problem in Chicago. U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-7th), who represents more ex-offenders than any other member of the Illinois Congressional delegation, authored legislation that aims to help those former inmates transition back into society.

His Second Chance Act passed in Congress in 2008. The law has already channeled hundreds of millions of federal dollars to programs nationwide. President George W. Bush signed the bipartisan bill, and advocates emphasize apparent early successes.

But some local observers offer a nuanced picture of the act's impact. While the legislation has promise, its long-term impact will be limited without more funding from Congress.

"The goals and objectives are very worthwhile, and it's an approach that's needed," said Malcolm Young, director of the Northwestern University Law School Bluhm Legal Clinic's Prison Reentry Strategies program. But Young cautions that the law's success rates are "marginal," noting that the programs are relatively small and short term.

"It's difficult to get the kind of evaluations out of them that people actually want."

In 2011, more than 30,500 men and women left Illinois prisons and jails, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. About half of them are likely to return to prison within three years, further disrupting families and communities.

Each year, thousands return to Chicago neighborhoods like Austin, North Lawndale, and East Garfield Park — all West Side neighborhoods Davis' district. In the late 1990s, Davis and his staff began addressing the epidemic plaguing his district.

"We are the most incarcerated nation on the face of the Earth," Davis said. "If these people become contributing members of society, then they become assets, as opposed to the liabilities that we know them as being."

The Second Chance Act directs money to the Departments of Justice, Labor, and Health and Human Services to fund efforts to fight addiction and provide job training. The act, Davis notes, addresses the challenges faced by those returning to free society.

Between 2009 and 2011, the Second Chance Act funded 11 grants to Illinois nonprofits and government entities, totaling $5.1 million. A September 2012 report by the Council of State Governments credited the act with helping many states decrease the number of former prisoners ending up back behind bars. In 2011, 47 percent of ex-offenders in Illinois returned to prison within three years of release, compared with 51.3 percent in 2010.

But the bill has its limitations.

According to the Justice Center, $63 million was allocated this year to be spread across 50 states. Young said this leaves little money for states to create the kind of massive, long-term programs needed to address such a large-scale problem.

He noted that the grants only fund programs — which often take time to get up and running — for a designated time period, and it's up to the program administrators to find other funding sources to sustain them long term.

Fred Nance, who was on the Second Chance advisory committee started by Davis that helped develop the bill, understands the stress of continuing a program after grant funding ends.

Nance served as the program coordinator for a mentoring program for sex offenders. Funded by a roughly $253,000 grant from the Second Chance Act, the program launched in November 2010. Establishing, Managing and Generating Effective Services, Inc. (EMAGES), provides counseling and clinical therapy to sex offenders. It also helps them with transitional services, such as housing, job placement, and literacy classes.

EMAGES operated through October of this year until its grant funding ended.

Nance is now asking the Cook County Jail to pay about $40,000 a year, as well as the Illinois Department of Corrections nearly $50,000 a year, to sustain the program, which has served 73 people since it began.

 

Jason Piper is one of those success stories.

A high school dropout, Piper was arrested at 19 and incarcerated for 17 years. He has since received his high school and associate's degree, and EMAGES set him up with a culinary internship which turned into a full-time job — his first since coming out of prison.

He's also in his third year of counseling with the organization, which he says is helping him overcome psychological stress that had been with him since childhood, issues that he says contributed to his criminal behavior.

"Back then, I really didn't have any confidence in myself at all. Piper said I didn't have any belief that I could do anything."

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