Via TalkLeft, there is an editorial in the New York Times regarding the Second Chance Act, which would shift funds to provide for community and state based programs that help reduce recidivism through treatment for non-violent offenders and assistance for newly released incarcerated persons.

Several states have instead begun to focus on developing community-based programs that deal with low-level, nonviolent offenders without locking them up. And they have begun to look at ways to control recidivism with programs that help newly released people find jobs, housing, drug treatment and mental health care — essential services if they are to live viable lives in a society that has historically shunned them.

Texas and Kansas have recently made important strides in this area. But corrections policy nationally would evolve much faster if Washington put its shoulder to the wheel. Congress needs to pass the Second Chance Act, which would provide grants, guidance and assistance to states and localities that are developing programs to reintegrate former inmates into their communities.

The current system corrections is far more focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation. While this may give some limited sense of satisfaction to some, this approach exacerbates crime rather than reducing it. The results of the punishment rather than rehabilitation approach to corrections speak for themselves, the more than two million Americans behind bars.

The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.1 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails — a 500% increase over the past thirty years. These trends have resulted in prison overcrowding and state governments being overwhelmed by the burden of funding a rapidly expanding penal system, despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not the most effective means of achieving public safety.

Part of the reason for America’s sluggishness on prison reform is that the problem of crime is racialized–so that crime becomes an issue of protecting white people from black people. Nixon’s “law and order” campaign was largely premised on framing the problem of crime in this fashion.

Note the racial disparities in the demographics of drug users and those imprisoned for drug offenses. While white people are far more likely to be illicit drug users than black people, blacks make up a disproportionate amount of the American prison population.

More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their twenties, 1 in every 8 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

The racial disparity in prison contributes to the lack of empathy Americans feel for incarcerated people, which is in turn exploited and exacerbated by like minded politicians. Simply put, your elected officials exploit racist stereotypes about blacks and crime to justify failed punitive policies rather than effective ones.

I question how much of the recent interest in rehabilitative programs has to do with the higher degree of white Americans being snared by mandatory minimum sentencing laws. It also makes one wonder, now that Brown has been overturned, will Americans lose interest in providing adequate public education for its resegregated schools? Will they rely on the words of people like Oprah to rationalize their disinterest in providing adequate resources to mostly black schools? Or will the callousness we’ve seen for so many years with regards to failed corrections policies become the rule in public education?

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. First, Washington has to pass a law that brings our bloated prison system back to focusing on reducing crime rather than punishing criminals. Given the Democratic Party’s cowardice on the war in Iraq, which overwhelming amount of Americans oppose, I have little faith that they will show courage on behalf of America’s incarcerated.

Republicans are even less likely to do so, even though, as TalkLeft points out, such programs reduce costs to the taxpayer.

It is a powerful cultural force that can make the Republican Party disregard an opportunity to claim they have saved taxpayer money.

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