On the Hill: Will Congress Support Second Chances for Prisoners?

Recently I wrote about a U.S. Senate committee hearing on solitary confinement that the American Humanist Association attended and participated in by submitting testimony. While this hearing detailed the problems with the practice known as solitary confinement or “restrictive housing,” the hearing did not cover the plight of those who were re-entering society after their stay in the prison system.

Thankfully, an important bill that deals with this very topic is currently awaiting passage in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, although partisan bickering may prevent it from ever reaching President Obama’s desk. This bill, the Second Chance Reauthorization Act, is a federal grant program that works to help those recently released from jail to reintegrate into society and stay out of the prison system. While the bill was introduced with bipartisan support, the Senate version being introduced by Senators Rob Portman, Republican, and Patrick Leahy, Democrat, and the House version being introduced by four Democrats and four Republicans, partisan obstructionism is likely to slow or even halt the progress of this bill.

The American Humanist Association has supported the Second Chance Act and its various reauthorization bills for years. Humanists understand that all human beings are deserving of a second chance at leading productive lives. The basic human dignity inherent in each individual, regardless of their criminal history, mandates that they not be cast off by society and relegated to a harsh lifetime in and out of prison.

This bill would do a lot to help recent offenders stay out of prison by seeking to decrease criminality through funding programs meant to fight substance abuse, help manage re-entry into society, or train individuals for careers.

America has the most expansive prison system in the world. According to the Association of State Correctional Administrators more than 1.6 million adults were in state and federal prisons in 2010, while 700,000 adults were released in 2011—four times more than were released 30 years ago. With this many adults in prison and leaving it soon, it benefits everyone, regardless of criminal history, to have properly funded programs that help former prisoners in their transition back to mainstream society.

The Second Chance Act has been sitting in committee in both the House and Senate since November and is unlikely to move soon. However, the growing concern by Americans and advocacy groups on this topic may be enough to help these bills proceed through the legislative process in the very near future.

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