Thirteen million Americans have been convicted of felonies and spent time in prison, and they tend to return to prison again and again, says the New York Times. Of the 650,000 inmates who will be released in 2004, two thirds will be back behind bars within few years. Operating expenses for state prisons alone is around $30 billion a year. The Times cites pending legislation in Congress on two factors behind the revolving-door phenomenon: the huge number of mentally ill people in prison, and the difficulty ex-convicts have in carving out new lives in the law-abiding world. The Second Chance Act, endorsed by the White House and developed primarily by Rep. Rob Portman (R-Oh.), and Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill) would invest $112 million over the next two years in drug treatment and mentoring aimed at helping newly released felons rejoin their communities. It would do away with a law that denies college loans to applicants with drug offenses, even if the offenses resulted in no jail time and occurred in the distant past.
Another bill recognizes the role mentally ill offenders play in the recidivism problem. About one in six prison inmates is mentally ill. Recent studies describe American prisons as mental institutions by default – although they are institutions in which the disturbed inmates get little treatment. Once they complete their sentences, such inmates are generally dumped onto the streets without medication or therapy, and rapidly end up back in jail. The Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, which was passed by the Senate in 2003, calls for $100 million for inmates’ mental health services, including training for people who work in mental health courts.