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Today when President Bush signed the Second Chance Act, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’s more in search of a second chance for himself than for the millions of Americans languishing in American prisons under his watch.

The Second Chance Act, at least symbolically, represents a dramatic policy shift on drug crimes-by comparison, it’s the moral equivalent of America lifting the economic embargo against Cuba overnight.

Not since the Nixon Administration has America considered rehabilitation as a solution to drug crimes. For much of the last three decades, lengthier sentences have been the universal American public policy answer to crime and punishment. The result has been the approximately two million strong prison? population.


The Second Chance Act mandates a strong commitment to rehabilitation as central to America’s criminal justice system, calls on the Justice Department to increase research on reentry, creates a national Reentry Resource Center to advocate successful reentry approaches, and is backed by $165 million annually.

Although education, housing assistance and employment top the list of experimental programs for which matching grants will be available, the new law won’t fly without a serious commitment to:

• a  public relations campaign to reverse the Willie Hortonization of the urban poor. It’s going to take time and money to reverse three decades of insisting the poor are unworthy of rehabilitation.

• jobs for working class Americans. The Bush years mark the greatest loss of jobs in America since the Depression. Without living wage jobs for America’s working class, ex-offenders have few places to re-enter the American economy except in the underground economy.

• economic development in  impoverished urban centers that have been all but abandoned. I’m not talking about transplanting the poor to the benefit of latte-sipping middle and upper class gentrifiers. Rather, we need a real commitment to rebuilding infrastructure in poor communities that’s as large as infrastructure rebuilding in Iraq and the multi-billion dollar bailout that the Bush Administration is advocating for financial markets.

I am all for rehabilitation. But if Bush is hoping to redeem his legacy in his eleventh hour, it will take more than empty gestures or the genuflecting of a reformed compassionate conservative.

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