Social Work and the Second Chance Act

Wall of bars with revolving gate and sign 'Second Chance'The size and cost of America's prison system has skyrocketed in the past 30 years. Yet, according to reports by the Pew Center on the States, recidivism rates remain high.

After decades of building more jails and prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice along with lawmakers are putting new faith behind programs that help prisoners successfully reenter society.

NASW was a supporter of the Second Chance Act that was passed into law in 2008. While the measure was approved, putting money behind the first-of-its-kind legislation was the next hurdle. NASW joined more than 250 organizations nationwide in sending letters to lawmakers this year to encourage appropriations funding that will offer federal grants to government agencies and community and faith-based organizations to provide employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing, family programming, mentoring, victims support, and other services that can help reduce re-offending and violations of probation and parole.

Presidential support. In March, President Obama signed into law an omnibus appropriations bill for the remainder of fiscal year 2009 that provides $25 million for Second Chance Act programs, including $15 million for state and local reentry demonstration projects and $10 million for grants to nonprofit organizations for mentoring and other transitional services. For fiscal year 2010, President Obama has requested $109 million for prisoner reentry programs, including $75 million for Second Chance Act programs.

Second Chance Act sponsor Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said he was pleased by the president's proposed budget for the act. "This investment of $75 million will bring tremendous returns," he said in an article posted by the Justice Center. "However, throughout the budget and appropriations processes, I shall be advocating and working for more."

Social workers will likely play a large role in this effort and they are being encouraged to investigate how they or their organizations may qualify for some of the grants, particularly those that encourage the use of evidence-based practices.

Melvin Wilson, manager of NASW's Office of Workforce Development and Training, said having the Obama administration support prisoner reentry efforts is an important step in turning the tide from building more prisons and jails to helping certain offenders turn their lives around. He said the Reentry Work Group has led to the effort to mobilize support from different organizations to support the passage of the Second Chance Act.

Wilson said the rate of incarceration had been stable in the U.S. until the early 1970s. Surprisingly, since that period to the present, the rate has quadrupled.

Jane Browning, executive director of the International Community Corrections Association (ICCA), said there is a noticeable shift in thinking among the Justice officials and lawmakers to focus on ways to better reduce recidivism. "The pendulum has swung from a punitive form of dealing with offenders to helping them return to society," she said. "That rings the social work bell. That's what social workers are trained to do."

Instead of more probation officers, justice officials see the benefit in hiring more case managers, Browning said. Since some statistics reveal that 87 percent of incarcerations are drug related, it only makes sense that people trained in treating substance abuse will be valued, Browning said.

Reducing recidivism

Gary Dennis, senior policy advisor at the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, discussed policy issues related to the Second Chance Act at the ICCA Policy Forum in March. The ICCA is a private, nonprofit organization representing a continuum of community-based corrections programs. He told attendees that the Justice Department is touting the use of evidenced-based practices in community programs "We want wrap-around services to increase success," he said. The goal is for grantees to achieve a 50-percent reduction in recidivism rates over a five-year period, which means a person who does not return to jail within a 12-month period with a new violation. "The proposals we receive must have a plan and a task force of key stakeholders in place," he said. "We've had encouraging calls on reentry efforts."

Dennis said a long-term goal is to create a nationwide resource center that provides training for reentry projects as well as evidence-based practices. "It will connect other organizations and individuals involved in reentry," he said.

Dennis said at press time that the agency was preparing to announce soon the request for proposals from non-government agencies, including community and faith-based organizations, where a grantee can be awarded up to $300,000 for 24 months.

Already this year, the Bureau of Justice Assistance released solicitation grants to state and local governments and Indian Tribes for adult reentry demonstration projects defined in the Second Chance Act. Funding under this section is available to help state and local agencies implement programs and strategies to reduce recidivism and ensure the safe and successful reentry of adults released from prison and jails. A solicitation for reentry demonstration projects focusing on juvenile populations is also in the works.

The need to fund the Second Chance Act for federal prisons was also discussed in a recent subcommittee hearing on Commerce, Justice, and Related Agencies, for the U.S. House Appropriations Committee. Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), told lawmakers in March that continuing increases in the inmate population pose substantial ongoing challenges for the agency. "We have not been able to build enough new facilities to keep up with the increase in the federal inmate population," he said.

Later in his comments, Lappin pointed out that virtually all federal inmates will be released back into the community at some point. Most need job skills, vocational training, education, counseling, and other assistance such as drug treatment, anger management and parenting skills, he stated in his report. "Each year, approximately 45,000 federal inmates return to our communities, a number that will continue to increase as the inmate population grows," he said.

Federal prison industries is the BOP's most important correctional program because it has been proven to substantially reduce recidivism and is self-sustaining, he said. However, federal prison industries only reach 13 percent of the BOP population, a 30-percent decrease from just six years ago.

Lappin said, "We desire to expand inmate programs that have been demonstrated to reduce recidivism as expressed through our mission and bolstered by the theme and specifics of the Second Chance Act. We can provide more inmates with the opportunity to avail themselves of beneficial correctional programs by reducing our crowding and adequately staffing our facilities as funding permits."

NASW joined other organizations in sending letters to the U.S. Attorney General, the Office of Management and Budget and to members of the Committee on Appropriations, urging funding for the Second Chance Act. It "will provide crucial resources at a time when they are desperately needed," the letter stated. It pointed out that federal and state prisons in 2007 held just under 1.6 million inmates - one in every 198 U.S. residents - and released 725,000 individuals back into the community. If the current growth rates continue, state and federal prisons will grow by 13 percent by 2013, adding more than 192,000 prisoners at a cost of $27.5 billion. The Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics pointed out that jails are growing at an even faster pace, the letter stated. Research, however, shows that comprehensive, coordinated services can help formerly incarcerated people find stable employment and housing, thereby reducing recidivism.

"By providing the resources needed to coordinate reentry services and policies at the state and local level, the Second Chance Act ensures that the tax dollars spent on corrections do not simply fuel a revolving door in and out of prison and jail," the letter stated.

States need help

Due to the deepening recession, states are facing huge budget deficit shortfalls and are taking another look at how much is spent on prisons. The option of placing low-level offenders in community supervision programs that aim to curb recidivism in order to spend less on corrections in the future is being closely examined by state officials, according to a recent story published in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. It noted that Pennsylvania had one in 28 adults in jail or in prison, on probation or on parole in 2007, costing the state more than $1.8 million. Nationwide, the figure is one in 31 adults, the story stated.

Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on States, said research shows that prisons are housing too many people who can be managed safely and held accountable in the community at a far lower cost. Gelb said states spend nearly $79 a day to lock up inmates, while daily costs to oversee parolees and probationers is less than $3.50.

Gelb, who spoke at the ICCA policy forum, told attendees that he is confident changes can be made with those who deal in corrections. "If we have one message to deliver it is that the time is now for community corrections and promoting the benefits of focusing on behavioral changes," he said.

"We feel comfortable at Pew saying that if you do community corrections right you can reduce recidivism by 30 percent if you use a cognitive approach," Gelb said. He said surveys show that two-thirds of respondents in a survey support low-level treatment of those guilty of a crime in lieu of incarceration.

The "One in 31" report by the Pew Center on the States pointed out that 7.3 million people are under some form of prisoner supervision in the U.S. It costs 22 times as much to incarcerate someone as opposed to a lesser method, according to Gelb. Because of this, legislators say they are on board with promoting prisoner reentry projects that use evidence-based practices, Gelb said.

"This is a terrific moment in time that so many groups are coming together," he said.