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June 26, 2004 - The New York Times (NY)

The Price Of Prisons

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Thirteen million Americans have been convicted of felonies and spent time in prison-more than the population of Greece. And they tend to return to prison again and again. Of the 650,000 inmates who will be released in 2004, two-thirds will be back behind bars within few years.

The cost of keeping so many in jail-the operating expenses for state prisons alone is around $30 billion a year-has created bipartisan concern.

Congress, which spent so many years obsessed with how to look tough on crime, is currently considering legislation that would tackle two of the big factors behind the revolving-door phenomenon: the huge number of mentally ill people in prison, and the difficulty ex-convicts have in carving out new lives in the law-abiding world.

A bill known as the Second Chance Act, endorsed by the White House and developed primarily by Representative Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, and Representative Danny Davis, Democrat of Illinois, would invest a modest $112 million over the next two years in drug treatment and mentoring programs aimed at helping newly released felons rejoin their communities.

It would also do away with a punitive federal law that denies college loans to applicants with drug offenses, even if the offenses resulted in no jail time and occurred in the distant past.

The loan ban, which has been used to deny aid to more than 140,000 students, would remain in effect only for people who committed drug crimes while actually receiving federal aid. Unfortunately, the bill would not eliminate a similar rule that excludes inmates from the federal Pell Grant program.

The Second Chance Act calls for a task force to review the obstacles that keep ex-felons pinned to the margins of society.

If this bill is passed, as it deserves to be, the task force will find a wealth of information in a recent study by the Legal Action Center, a criminal justice policy group, which identifies laws in all 50 states that bar former convicts from scores of professions that require state licenses.

While it is important to screen for prison records when hiring teachers or day care workers, it makes no sense to tell men and women who once served time for breaking state drug laws that they are barred for life from careers as barbers or landscape architects. Some states even strip convicts of their driver's licenses.

The House is also considering a bill that recognizes the role that mentally ill offenders play in the recidivism problem. About one in six prison inmates is mentally ill. A spate of recent studies describe American prisons as mental institutions by default-although they are institutions in which the disturbed inmates get no treatment to speak of.

Once they complete their sentences, such inmates are generally dumped onto the streets without medication or therapy, and rapidly end up back in jail.

The Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, which was passed by the Senate in 2003, calls for an investment of $100 million for inmates' mental health services, including training for people who work in mental health courts.

These courts make sure that offenders with mental problems comply with treatment regimens.

Opponents are already arguing that given the government's enormous deficit, Congress should reject any bills that involve new spending. But given the soaring price of incarceration, and a prison population that is growing, the most costly option is to do nothing.

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