Bill’s goal is to break criminals’ jail cycle

MARIETTA – For the hundreds of thousands of ex-offenders released from prison every year, the message is simple: get out and stay out.

New federal legislation aimed at reauthorizing 2008’s Second Chance Act would help previously incarcerated inmates do just that.

Introduced in the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Second Chance Act of 2013 would allow continued grant funding for programs that help offenders transition from incarceration to life outside of prison or jail, thereby reducing the likelihood that offenders will commit another crime and wind up back behind bars.

The act is supported by myriad legislators, including Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who co-sponsored the bill.

“Rather than incarcerating repeat offenders in the same families generation after generation, we can put our taxpayer dollars to better use to break this vicious cycle and turn lives around,” said Portman in a press release.

For Ohio, where the state prison system is currently at 131 percent of capacity, the act could go a long way toward prison population reduction, said Congressman Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, in a statement.

“Not only is the increasing prison population a fiscal strain on hardworking American taxpayers, but it’s also a serious concern that 95 percent of these inmates will be released into society, averaging 682,000 released inmates annually,” he said.

The bill will fund programs that offer job training, substance abuse treatment, improved community supervision and more.

Finding and keeping a job is one of the biggest challenges for convicted offenders as they are released from prison or even from a less lengthy local jail stay, said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.

“A lot of times they go back into the peer groups and particularly with drugs, start their habits again,” he said.

Getting a GED and learning how to apply for a job and perform well in an interview are just some of the skills that can help ex-offenders become productive members of society upon their release, said Mincks.

GED programs and some job counseling are offered by the Washington County Jail. However, those offerings are funded by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

While Ohio has received more than $18 million in grant funding since the original Second Chance Act was introduced, none of that has been directly awarded to Washington County organizations.

The county does participate in the Ohio Ex-Offender Reentry Coalition (OERC), a partnership made possible by the Second Chance Act.

The coalitions provide resources to help transition offenders back into the community, such as helping them find housing and jobs, said Dawn Rauch, the director of planning for Washington-Morgan Community Action.

“We have a five-year strategic plan completed,” said Rauch, who coordinates the OERC services for Washington County. However, there is currently no funding to run the program, she said.

Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Ed Lane said rural communities are often left wanting for more when it comes to funding such programs.

“In rural areas, we have the same rate of crime per capita but we have a smaller population so we don’t get as much money. Well, the cost to run that program here is the same whether we’re dealing with 200 people in Washington County or 2,000 people in Franklin County,” he said.

Lane said the courts should be involved in decisions involving funding offender programming.

“To be effective they’re going to have to include the courts and those involved to find out what we believe will work,” he said.

Counseling and drug testing for released drug offenders would be good starts, Lane said.

“When we had the drug court and (area businesses) knew offenders were being drug tested every week, they were much more likely to hire them,” he said.

The funding received since the act’s original passage has been one of the factors in reducing Ohio’s recidivism rate, said Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in a letter encouraging Ohio legislators to support the bill.

“Ohio’s recidivism rate now stands at a historic low of 28.7 percent for inmates released in 2009,” he wrote.

Comparatively, Ohio inmates released in 2003 had a 39.5 percent rate of recidivism.