Failed Second Chance Efforts Show Need for Fresh Approach

Silas Horst

Having worked for years on criminal justice issues at Koch Industries, I thought I had seen and heard of all the ways our nation’s criminal justice systems are broken. Yet two recent publications highlight how difficult and complicated it is to create and implement meaningful and effective second chance policies and programs.

In one report, a large randomized controlled trial of programs was conducted to assess the impact of selected federal Second Chance Act (SCA) programs. The programs studied “had no significant effect on the primary outcome of reincarceration over the 30 months following random assignment (60 percent of the SCA group were reincarcerated versus 59 percent of the control group, a difference that was not statistically significant).”

The reviewers and original study authors are careful to note this sampling of programs does not necessarily reflect the effectiveness of all SCA funding. However, both parties agree that on the whole the SCA is yet another failed approached to improving a serious problem through increased government funding: “The SCA is typical of many federal social programs, in that it awards grants to state and local agencies to expand or supplement a diverse array of existing services in those jurisdictions. This is a logical approach if one assumes that many of these services are effective… (emphasis is my own)”.

While recidivism rates have trended slightly downward in the last decade, these findings would be cause for concern on their own from a societal and public safety perspective; but when you consider that the Department of Justice has awarded $700 million dollars in the last decade to similar programming under SCA, you have to wonder if there isn’t a better use for your hard-earned tax dollars.

The second noteworthy publication comes from Colleen Chien, Law Professor and technologist at Santa Clara University. In a survey of second chance policy reforms like expanded access to record sealing and clemency, Professor Chien made a sober, almost disheartening finding. “Among the studied initiatives, the majority of second chances have been missed chances, apparently due to administrative factors like low awareness and high-cost, high-friction application processes and backlog.” Professor Chien noted that uptake was less than 20 percent in most cases, meaning more than 80 percent of those who qualify for the second chances she researched did not or could not get them.

These publications provide a snapshot of broad and narrow policy efforts falling far short of their intended goals. Reentry from incarceration, and rebuilding a life, remains a complex and persistent set of problems for millions of Americans. Well-intentioned policies divorced from practical implementation and demonstrable impact simply aren’t good enough.

Real human lives are impacted by these failures – families are separated, communities are less safe, and those hungry for change are denied a chance for rehabilitation and hope for their future. We need to do better.

By taking an evidence-informed approach, Safe Streets & Second Chances will provide policymakers with data that indicates what works, and what still needs to be studied, fixed, or stopped entirely. The hundreds of thousands of Americans returning to society every year deserve programs, and second chance policies, that will transform lives and communities in an efficient way without wasting taxpayer dollars.

Learn more about Safe Streets & Second Chances’ work and mission here.