January 31, 2004 - Syndicated Columnist Neal Peirce

Bush's "Prisoner Re-Entry"-- Mighty Modest But A Start

By Neal Peirce

WASHINGTON -- If President Bush is serious about the "Prisoner Re-Entry" program he mentioned in the waning moments of his State of-the-Union address, it could mark a historic first step back from the harshly punitive direction American penal policy has taken since the 1970s.

The President noted that 600,000 ex-offenders will return to our communities this year. Many, he correctly observed, "can't find work, or a home or help," meaning they're "much more likely to commit more crimes and return to prison."

So in the spirit of America as "the land of the second chance," Bush urged a four-year, $300 million program of job training, placement services, transitional housing and mentoring.

It sounds great -- but. Many critical questions are raised.

First, is the White House willing to back change of laws that now force judges to impose prison terms of 10, 15, or 20 years, even for less serious crimes? As U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner wrote in the Boston Globe last week: "Too many prisoners are serving sentences that are too long under conditions that are not remotely conducive to rehabilitation. We must change our approach long before reentry."

Indeed, a very big reason we're now the world's biggest incarcerator, with over 2 million people behind bars, is the flood of prosecutions of non-violent drug users and small-time sellers. There's zero proof that imprisoning all these offenders, throwing them into hateful and sometimes violent penitentiary environments, reduces drug consumption or makes our communities safer.

So Mr. President, how about restoring full sentencing discretion to judges? Why not shift federal prosecutors away from the clearly unwinnable "war on drugs," substituting treatment for arrest of non-violent offenders?

Second, isn't it hypocritical for government to declare its concern for released prisoners when it's jiggered so many rules to doom their chances of successful readjustment to society?

In 1996, Congress banned anyone ever convicted of using or selling drugs from welfare assistance or food stamps -- for life. Among the victims, notes Sacramento Bee columnist Peter Schrag, are "breast-feeding women, the old, the ill, parents of young children, many of them convicted only on possession charges and long cured of their addiction." States can choose to opt out of the federal ban, but 20 enforce it in full.

A 1998 federal statute bars convicted drug users from receiving college tuition assistance; another effectively denies public housing if anyone in the family ­ not just the first-listed tenant -- has ever been engaged in "any drug-related" activity.

If the President really believes in "second chances," he could start by urging Congress to revoke these vengeful and counterproductive laws.

Not that the states are much more welcoming to the convict who walks out of prison with a few dollars in his hand and maybe no place to sleep for the night. Illinois, for example, bars more than 50 job titles to ex-offenders. Among them: barber, beautician, hospital worker, embalmer, private detective, horse meat dealer or operator of a hazardous waste crane or hoisting equipment.

And those prohibitions aren't just temporary -- they're for life.

Well before President Bush's "Re-Entry" program surfaced, Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), was pushing a "Public Safety Ex-Offender Self-Sufficiency Act" providing an attractive investor tax credit to stimulate building of 100,000 housing units for former convicts. His goal: providing released offenders with the stability of a place to live, wrapped around services including education, job placement, transportation, drug counseling, anger management and basic medical care.

Several dozen House members, including conservative Rep. Henry Hyde, are co-sponsoring Davis' bill.

Davis himself would go further, to help ex-convicts expunge their felony records -- or, alternatively, win executive clemency or certificates of rehabilitation to help them gain employment.

Just listing a felony on a job application, reader Eileen Engel e-mailed me recently, is like "wearing a huge letter F," a modern scarlet letter inviting instant rejection.

Educator Shabaka Tecumseh wrote that he's an "ex-felon" of 30 years. After his drug conviction he went back to school, earned his degree, got a teaching license and taught for six years in California. But when he started teaching in another state, even after acknowledging the felony, he was suddenly discharged as "unfit to teach." "After 30 years," Tecumseh asserts, "I think it's pretty damn cruel."

Several readers asked: Why not "sunset rules," sealing records of past convictions after several years free of new offenses? Some dozen states now permit that. Many more could safely and appropriately do the same -- even if they make necessary exceptions for such cases as convicted sex molesters seeking school employment, or embezzlers trying to land a bank job.

Add in related issues like restoration of voting rights to ex-felons, and it's clear Mr. Bush's "Re-Entry" proposal just nibbles at the edge of a deep-seated national problem.

But let's take heart: at least the president mentioned the issue!

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