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Too little second chances for prisoners

ON TUESDAY NIGHT President Bush called for the funding of programs to deal with some 600,000 inmates who will be released from prison this year -- without work, without a home, without help. "America," he said, is the "land of second chances," and he added that when the "gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life." I applaud the thought, but it is too little, too late.

 

I have seen the impact of imprisonment on the human beings I sentence. As a federal judge, I take pains to monitor these men and women after their release from prison. I visit the programs that our Probation Office uses for ex-offenders to support their efforts to restart their lives.

The programs teach or reteach the most fundamental life skills -- how to dress for a job, how to eat nutritiously, how to apply for employment, how to be in a relationship, how to parent. And I am struck over and over again by how difficult the task is.

The problem is that the policies our government has implemented, long before those prison gates are open, undermine a prisoner's opportunity for a second chance. 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.

In fact, Bush's $300 million initiative reminds me of a homeowner who, midwinter, turns up the thermostat but leaves the front door open. It seems like a great idea, but it misses the real problems.

We sentence more and more nonviolent offenders to ever increasing imprisonment terms. The sentencing guidelines require judges to impose prison terms of 10, 15, 20 years, as if they are just numbers, rather than real punishments for real people, with real consequences.

While ever increasing prison terms enable some to vent their spleen about the "crime problem," they do little or nothing to effect a solution: Lengthy prison terms undermine an offender's chances for a meaningful life after prison. They destroy communities and decimate families that are already struggling, especially in our inner-cities. And from those decimated communities comes more crime.

We do little to prepare offenders for release while they are in prison. Money slated for drug-treatment programs gets recycled into barbed wire, and walls. Upon release, there are fewer and fewer places for prisoners to go.

On Christmas Eve 2002, the Bureau of Prison announced that it would no longer place offenders who are six months before the end of their prison term to half-way houses; they now must wait until they have reached the last 10 percent of their terms, no matter how short a time that is. Nor would the bureau allow nonviolent offenders sentenced to short terms to be placed in the halfway houses either.

When I recently visited a halfway house in Boston, I learned that inmates' terms there are now so short that the staff -- a talented group of professionals -- could barely provide them with the skills they needed, a job, decent housing, a future.

With fewer and fewer government referrals for nonviolent offenders, many halfway houses have had to close their doors. Using "faith based" groups to fill this considerable gap, as the president's speech suggests, is not likely to be either adequate or fair.

In fact, talk of "reentry" seems to many to be a cruel joke in a society where the race to punish has made it next to impossible for ex-offenders to get public assistance or qualify for a host of government programs.

It seems to many to be an empty promise in an economy where there are fewer and fewer jobs, especially for an ex-offender who may be lacking in skills and facing discrimination.

So while the call for a "reentry initiative," sounds laudable enough, where everything we do to these offenders before the prison gates open is inconsistent with giving them a "second chance," it is too little, too late. Reentry should begin at sentencing, and not a moment later.

Nancy Gertner is a US District Court judge in Massachusetts.

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