Not Leaving Ex-Cons in the Lurch

Disturbing figures on the excessively large numbers of inmates in US prisons reflect lopsided anticrime policies that for too long have failed to address the needs for rehabilitation of former prisoners.

A report released Monday by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics underscores the point. It shows America's prison population swelled by 900 inmates each week, on average, between mid-2003 and mid-2004. That translates to about 2.1 million people in US prisons, or a shocking one in every 138 US residents as of the end of June, 2004.

But the fact remains that some 650,000 people leave prison each year to return to their communities. About 97 percent of those in prison eventually are released. Yet too many leave with little or none of the assistance that would help them remain free of criminal behavior. Perhaps that's why more than half of all released offenders fail to stay out of trouble and end up back in the courts or in prison.

The good news: Those trends appear to be changing. A growing list of states are creating needed, and better, reentry services for former offenders. In fact, the National Conference of State Legislatures notes some 22 states enacted prisoner-related reform measures between 2002 and 2004. Let's hope that represents the start of a turnaround in the approach to crime and punishment in the United States.

In 2004, for example, Connecticut lawmakers created incremental sanctions for parole violations, based on the violation's severity. That's shows a commitment to rehabilitation and better use of prison space. Georgia set up a pilot program that allows probation officers to come up with tailored strategies for parolees, such as electronic monitoring or more frequent drug-testing, other than reincarceration.

Beyond that, some states, such as Michigan and New York, have been shortening criminal sentences where they deem appropriate. Others are restoring early-release programs for good behavior. And some, like Ohio, have passed laws ensuring that nonviolent felons are put in halfway houses rather than in prison.

At the federal level, the picture is a bit brighter too. The National Institute of Corrections is providing assistance to states to improve the transition process for released inmates. The Justice Department has a combined federal, state, and local program to support prisoner reentry.

Working in such constructive directions, state and federal governments can contribute mightily to reducing the US prison population, and ultimately, crime.

All it takes is a little more faith that ex-cons can truly be that - ex.

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