Celebrate Black History by Supporting Re-Entry Programs

February is Black History Month.  I remember when the notion of Black History Month was pretty controversial.  These days, at least in some circles, Black History Month has kind of settled into a routine - a time when we talk about well known African American figures in the history of our nation.

That was never the intent behind the creation of a Month set aside to explore the history of African Americans.  The great African Americans whose birthdays we celebrate in February, Frederick Douglas and W.E.B. DuBois, were scholars and authors, but they were also activists and implementors.  They saw the need to improve the world, not just study it from afar.  The lessons of African American History month are not just for, or about, African Americans.  They are in many ways, the great lessons of American History.

I always like to say that ‘education is something that you do, and not just something that you know.’  If you learn about something that is a problem, something that is wrong, and you don’t do anything about it, then in my view, you really haven’t grasped the problem.  I like to apply that philosophy to everything I do in life.

That brings me to one of the problems that has surfaced in the past decade or so, but which has not yet received the focus or the attention it deserves.  I refer to the problem of the re-entry to civilian life each year of the large number of individuals who are incarcerated in our country. The United States has become the most incarcerated nation on the face of the earth. As I write this there are 2 million people in our Nation's prisons and jails. In 1984 that number was only 400,000, of which 25,000 were in Federal prisons.

According to many studies, most of that increase is due to new sentencing schemes like mandatory minimums.  However, as a result of our preoccupation with prison as a solution to so many of our social problems, especially the problem of drug use, we have poured our limited public resources into prisons and a prison system that is now eating away at the budgets of every state of the union, as well at the federal budget.  We have made little or no progress in our battle with illegal drugs or drug addiction.

Those 2 million people locked away in our prisons are proportionately more than we would find in prison in China or in Russia or any other of the countries that we often talk about because of their civil and  human rights violations.  And it is a problem that we have got to get a handle on because many of these individuals come home every year.

Each year we expect about 650,000 to come home from jails and prison, and when they come home, they need to be reintegrated.  But, unfortunately, when many of them come home, they cannot find a job.  They cannot find a place to stay.  There are laws that prohibit them from working.

In my State of Illinois there are now 39 job titles by law that an individual who has a felony conviction could not hold.  As a matter of fact, a person could not even get a license to cut hair without some intervention, and a person could not be a nail technician unless they got a waiver or some special consideration.  No matter how tough we get in sentencing, the fact is that 95 percent of inmates will be released at some point.  The question is whether they are going to reenter society in a context that better prepares them to lead law‑abiding lives or whether two‑thirds will return to prison within 3 years, as the present trend is.  So prisoner reentry has become a big issue but not big enough.

Statistics suggest that when an individual comes out of prison, unless there is some help for them, unless there is some intervention, 67 percent of them will re-offend within a 3‑year period of time and more than half of them will be re-incarcerated.  If we could help those ex-offenders to become self‑sufficient rather than spending $25,000 or $30,000 a year taking care of them, they could help take care of other members of society and they could pay their share of the taxes that it takes to keep our country running.  But if they are not working, and if they are incarcerated with no hope, they are not going to pay any of those taxes.  Instead, they are going to be consuming those tax dollars to keep them confined and they are going to feed the cycle of more prisons and more prisoners.

Many of us have been trying to work on it, and I introduced a bill to provide some alternatives for those who are returning to civilian life.  Of course, it is no panacea.  It is a first step in addressing the problem.  If we are going to continue to send more people to prison with longer and longer sentences and spend that kind of money, we ought to spend the little bit of money in this bill to reduce the chances when they are released that they will be likely to come back to prison.

The President, in his State of the Union address several years ago, agreed and suggested that we had to do something for these individuals coming home.  That set into motion an extended conversation that has moved a version of the bill to provide some resources for a positive re-entry program to the verge of passage.  It would also provide some coordination so that we can have the Justice Department, the Education Department, the Labor Department, all working jointly at the same time to develop coherent strategies so that as individuals return, there is a coordinated effort to keep them from going back.

I, along with a good number of my colleagues in the House, Democrats and Republicans, am going to be re-introducing that bill - the Second Chance Act - in the near future because it  makes sense . . . it is a rational, cost effective response to a problem which is now out of control.  Things look good for its passage, but it’s never too late to call your Congressman or Senator and urge them to support the bill.  I can’t think of a better way of celebrating Black History Month 2007 than making that call today.