The Second Chance Act:
Why is it so important?

From the brink of suicide
to saving lives

(CNN) -- Twenty-three years ago, Scott Silverman found himself at an open, 44th-story window, on the brink of suicide. Two decades of escalating substance abuse, blackouts and depression had brought him to this moment.

"I didn't think of myself as depressed, but then my drinking got so bad at the end, I felt my life was over," Silverman recalled. Just then, a colleague entered the room and asked him what he was doing. Silverman entered rehab the next day and has been sober ever since.

Fast forward to 2008. Silverman has turned not only his own life around but also the lives of thousands of others. Rehab and volunteering brought him close to a community of others in need: people in shelters, those who were homeless, others who had come out of jail.

They all shared one problem, Silverman saw: They were unable to find and keep a job.

"I thought, I've been in treatment, I've lost jobs, but I got lucky and had a very supportive family. I had to find a way to help them more effectively," he said.

The vehicle for that assistance is his Second Chance program in San Diego. It provides job readiness training, housing for sober living, and mental health and employment support services for what Silverman calls a "difficult-to-serve" population.

Started in 1993, Second Chance has provided services to more than 24,000 individuals. It helps graduates with job placement and follows up with them for two years.

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The United States has the largest prison population in the world – 2.3 million in state and federal prisons and more in local jails. Ninety-five percent – about 650,00 a year -- will be released. Two-thirds of them will commit new crimes within three years and go back to prison.

The cost to the taxpayers is enormous. The annual incarceration expenses in 2002 were $60 billion. Today, according to recent testimony before a Senate Joint Economic Committee hearing, the combined expenses of law enforcement and incarceration are estimated at $200 billion.

President Bush in his 2004 State of the Union address said, “This year some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society. We know from long experience that if they can’t find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison … America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”

Instead, ex-offenders go back to their communities with few job skills, inadequate drug treatment, insufficient housing, a lack of positive influences and few mental or physical health services.

The Second Chance Act, with bipartisan sponsorship in both chambers and more than 100 national organizations, will do something about this growing threat to public safety and taxpayers’ wallets. It substitutes the warehousing of human beings with rehabilitation, treatment, training, housing and mentoring. The money spent to lock up people indefinitely is instead redirected to help prepare them for a different return to society.

More and more states are trying this approach, but they need help. This law creates a task force to coordinate federal, local, state and faith-based efforts to help ex-offenders return to their communities with half a chance to stay there and be good citizens.

The Episcopal Church committed its support for reentry legislation through the House of Bishops (B027) at General Convention 2006 and the Executive Council (NAC 208) in March.

The problems are not just trouble finding a job or avoiding the drug culture of a neighborhood.

Former prisoners face “invisible punishments” as spelled out by The Sentencing Project. Many drug felons cannot get welfare benefits, driver’s licenses, food stamps for their children, student loans, jobs in landscaping, barbering, hair styling or embalming, vote or move into public housing. And their family members – including children - - “are five times more likely to go to prison,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) at the Senate Joint Economic Committee hearing.

The Second Chance Act will help people redeem their own lives. It focuses on redemption and reconciliation through rehabilitation rather than solely on punishment or revenge.

The legislation will provide competitive demonstration grants to promote innovative programs focused on job training, education, housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health, children and families.

It also reauthorizes and improves existing federal, state and local government offender reentry programs and authorizes grants for research into the causes of recidivism and methods to improve education and vocational training during incarceration.

A National Offender Re-Entry Resource Center will be established to assist states and local governments, service providers, faith-based organizations, correction and community organizations. A Federal Task force will identify programs and resources, develop interagency initiatives and report to Congress on federal barriers to successful reentry.

The $330 million to be allocated over three years is a drop in the bucket compared with the cost of housing prisoners today and considering the $27 billion more projected to be spent to increase prison capacity. – Val Hymes