A generation ago, the attitude toward ex-offenders was one of impatient disdain, recalls Cong. Danny Davis.
Such sentiments were echoed by “Get-tough-on-crime” politicians and community leaders who spouting their unique brand of “lock ’em up and throw away the key” rhetoric.
However, the signing last week of the Second Chance Act by President Bush might be a signal that solutions other than punishment are being taken seriously.
“That’s exactly what we hope it will stimulate,” said Davis (D-7th) about the legislation, which allocates $362 million for ex-offender reentry programs. “The old way of handling offenders is simply focusing on the punishment aspect and ignoring the rehabilitation. But with statistics showing that 63 percent of ex-offenders who receive no help will offend again, it is obvious that these individuals must have access to programs that will allow them reentry into society and rebuild their lives.”
The ex-offender population has also grown exponentially in the last 10 years, a point that prevention advocates stress.
“Well, it used to be a time when a non-violent ex-offender had no chance of obtaining employment in many public relations positions, regardless of how long it has been since their conviction,” said Roger Ehmen, director of prisoner reentry services at the Westside Health Authority. “Now, their crime can be forgiven after about seven years. So a shift in the attitude toward ex-offenders has certainly taken place.”
Economic necessity has also influenced prevention efforts, advocates note.
In 2006, the Department of Justice released statistics showing that a record seven million Americans, or one in 32 adults, was in prison or on parole. With the formerly incarcerated making up a significant segment of the population, Davis said they must be thought of as “assets to their communities as apposed to liabilities.”
The shifting attitudes are evident in the bipartisan support behind the Second Chance Act. Traditionally, the Republican Party has pushed punishment while the Democratic Party has supported prevention.
“There’s no doubt that politicians are realizing that initiatives aiding reentry are necessary, which is a good thing,” said Bob Vondrasak, executive director of the South Austin Coalition (SACCC). “I think they realize that in this economy, continuously funding means of punishment for inmates over nonviolent crimes is just not practical.”
With the current housing crisis, rising gas prices, and the cost of living on the rise, funding primarily punishment efforts, especially for nonviolent criminals, is a recipe for more problems, advocates note.
“I would like to think that these programs will replace punishment of nonviolent crimes eventually, but it is going to take the realization that helping reentry begins inside the prison as well,” said Vondrasak.