Prisoners will get help read-justing to society after their release from
prison under a recently signed federal law. The assistance also will include
substance abuse and mental health screenings.
The Second Chance Act (HR 1593), which APA supported, was signed by
President Bush on April 9. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Danny Davis
(D-Ill.), will support a full continuum of care for treatment of former
inmates for substance use disorders. Additionally, the law supports mental
health screening and treatment and provides grants for family-treatment
programs. The bill also reauthorizes and expands some existing prisoner
"Many leave prison to return to the same environment that saw them
offend in the first place," Davis said in a written statement."
But, as they return, they often face additional barriers to reentry:
serious physical and mental health problems, no place to stay, and lack of
education or qualifications to hold a job."
The result of this situation, he said, is that two-thirds of the 650,000
offenders released every year are rearrested for new crimes within the first
three years after their release. Youth offenders are even more likely to
The potential beneficiaries of the Second Chance Act are numerous, as
chronicled in a 2006 report by the Department of Justice titled "Mental
Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates." The report concluded that
more than half of the population incarcerated in U.S. prisons and
jails—including 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal
prisoners, and 64 percent of local jail inmates—had a mental illness.
Many of those inmates suffered from treatable disorders, such as major
depression, bipolar disorder, and substance use disorders.
The challenges for ex-prisoners are not eased by corrections departments,
one-third of which provide no services to released offenders. Most departments
do not offer a transitional program, which places a heavy burden on families
and communities, Davis said.
The annual financial cost of incarceration and the social and economic
costs of crime led Davis to conclude that postincarceration programs that aim
to reduce recidivism are "just common sense."
The law will cost about $400 million from 2008 to 2012, including $181
million for Department of Justice grants for programs to improve mental health
treatment for inmates and help offenders reenter communities after they have
served their sentences, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In
addition, $10 million will be required annually to fund Bureau of Prisons
activities to prepare prisoners for successful reentry into the community.
An unspecified amount will be provided through grants to state and local
governments to help them develop drug-treatment programs for offenders, which
would serve as alternatives to imprisonment.
Among the first to urge legislation to provide postincarceration support
were psychiatrists from Davis's district in Chicago. Several psychiatrists
serve on his Mental Health Advisory Committee, and they supported the
legislation as a way to "decriminalize" mental illness, according
to advisory committee chair Kenneth Busch, M.D.
Busch, who is also chair of the Governmental Affairs Committee of the
Illinois Psychiatric Society, said the bill resulted from grassroots support
by psychiatrists and mental health professionals and members of the public
concerned about the problem of incarcerating people with mental illness,
including substance use problems. He described the nation's prisons as the
largest psychiatric hospitals in the nation.
"These people are untreated and then released and have nowhere to
go," Busch said. "It's a national tragedy that we don't address
this through wraparound services."
Many prisoners released with substance use problems have other mental
disorders; however, they are unable to afford the care they need, and without
that care they cannot become employed and self-supporting, according to a 2005
report on prisoner-reintegration challenges by the Annie E. Casey
In addition, resources for former inmates could ultimately improve overall
public safety by reducing crime linked to drug use and untreated mental
illness. That dovetails with the ultimate goal of the legislation, which is to
help ex-inmates become independent, contributing members of society, Busch
The Second Chance Act can be accessed at<http://thomas.loc.gov>
by searching on the bill number, HR 1593. ▪