Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Second Chance Act: What Smart Bipartisan Legislation Can Do

Harold Dean Trulear


By Harold Dean Trulear

January 17, 2014

In the late 1990s, a small group of political, religious, and community leaders saw an unforeseen consequence of the bipartisan efforts of government to get "tough on crime." Between the War on Drugs launched by the Republicans and harsh mandatory minimums supported by Democrats, jails and prisons filled rapidly without much thought that 95 per cent of prisoners return to society at some point.

Evangelical leaders gathered on the eve of the new century to develop Operation Lifeline in anticipation of the swelling numbers of formerly incarcerated persons due to return after 2000. President-elect Bush met with religious leaders in Austin, Texas in December 2000 to unveil his plans for an Office of Faith-Based and Community Affairs, with prisoner reentry as the leading agenda item in its portfolio. African American church leaders created Operation 2006 in recognition of the year designated to release more persons from incarceration (then estimated at 700,000 from state and federal facilities) than any year in American history. Such were the seeds planted that grew into bipartisan legislative action that eventually created the Second Chance Act of 2007. 

The Second Chance Act provided resources to governmental agencies and community organizations to address the needs of men and women returning from incarceration and to support programs designed to reduce recidivism rates (the number of formerly incarcerated persons who return to jail or prison within three years of their release). By promoting and supporting prisoner reentry programs, the federal government acknowledged, as some conservatives put it, the need to be "smart on crime," as opposed to "tough on crime." Areas of address included job readiness and job training, life skills development, family support, substance abuse treatment, and mentoring. The Council on State Governments received and funded proposals, strictly monitored programs, and collected data on results.

It has been working.

Now in 2014, legislation is moving through Congress for the reauthorization of the Second Chance Act. Again, amazing in the midst of partisan polarization, the Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2013 finds strong bipartisan support. Introduced in the Senate by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and in the House by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Danny Davis (D-IL), the bill extends the legislation for an additional five years and expands the number of opportunities for nonprofits to receive support for the work, with increased accountability based on data-driven evidence. Its appropriation for 67.5 million dollars is part of the omnibus spending bill released this past Tuesday.

The increased opportunity for nonprofit involvement represents real growth beyond the governmental agencies targeted in the 2007 legislation, which only provided direct funding to nonprofits for programs mentoring men and women returning from prison or jail. Even so, many religious organizations still received support under the original legislation through partnerships with state, county, and municipal agencies.

In Western Pennsylvania, for example, the "ChancesR: Reentry, Reunification and Recovery" initiative of Beaver County included a variety of agencies and organizations, including TRAILS Ministries (Transforming Lives, Restoring Hope, Advocating Change, Identifying Resources, Life Planning, and Supporting Families). While Beaver County Behavioral Health served as lead agency, TRAILS provided mentors for those returning from incarceration, who were called “returning citizens” rather than “ex-offenders.” Second Chance funding has also supported Welcome Home Ministries of San Diego in its work with women returning from incarceration. Working with a variety of partners, WHM recognizes the distinct challenges of women coming home, 65 per cent of whom have school-age children, and the overwhelming majority of whom have suffered from some type of abuse, be it sexual or domestic, prior to their incarceration.

Christians should care about prisoner reentry and reduction in recidivism rates. But this goes beyond the public safety issue often cited by professionals as the force behind reducing recidivism. Careful review of the literature reveals that the three most critical components for an individual's successful reentry are a change in attitude/worldview, a change in social networks, and significant reduction in impulsivity. Many of the pre-release programs in correctional institutions, such as Thinking for a Change, emphasize these issues. But is this not the business of the church as well? Conversion, discipleship, and fellowship all address these three areas of change. And to the extent that research indicates that the common grace of reentry programs brings about positive results, the Second Chance Reauthorization of 2013 deserves significant support. Congregations should step in and provide our own complementary resources of discipleship and fellowship to members of our community making the transition from incarceration back into society.

-  Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, and a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”