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Everyone deserves a second chance [Commentary]

Government shutdown. Hyper-partisanship. Ideological warfare. Gridlock in Congress.

While those are four things that too many associate with Washington, the reality is that along the banks of the Potomac, sensible minds from across the political and ideological spectrums are coming together in the most unexpected area of governance: criminal justice.

Justice is the ideal pursued, albeit imperfectly, in our nation's founding documents and advanced through time by our greatest leaders. It is also pursued and administered in every town and neighborhood — in red, blue and purple states — across the country.

Yet criminal justice is among the worst performing and most expensive government endeavors today.

The incarceration rate of African American adults and other minorities is unconscionably high, with nearly two-thirds of those behind bars being people of color. The rate for white adults isn't much better — it mirrors what the rate of black incarceration was during Apartheid in South Africa.

This heavy hand of government comes at a staggering cost: Corrections is the second fastest growing area of government across the 50 states, trailing only Medicaid.

Despite all this money, the failure rate of government-controlled corrections has remained constant over the years. A recent Pew study showed that nationwide 45 percent of those imprisoned commit another crime once released. In some states, this recidivism rate is above 60 percent.

With approximately 700,000 of our fellow citizens returning from our jails and prisons to our communities each year, incarceration alone is not a solution. We have to do a better job at making sure that those returning home from prison and jail are empowered to change and correct their course in life.

That's why we are supporting the Second Chance Reauthorization Act, which has been introduced in both houses of Congress by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats.

Simply put: The act — championed in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Pat Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and in the House of Representatives by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Danny Davis, an Illinois Democrat — allows those who have made mistakes a chance to pay their debt to society and renew their life as they make the transition back to their communities through employment, substance abuse treatment, housing, family programming and mentoring.

As leaders from both sides of the aisle, we recognize that a popular adage — "lock 'em up and throw away the key" — does not keep our communities safe and our families together. This is not about being soft on crime. Rather, this is about being smart and keeping us safe while at the same time breaking the cycle of crime for many individuals and families.

The political right and the left have come to understand that the one-size-fits-all punishments and lifelong encumbrances levied by government on those who have been involved with the criminal justice system have not only jeopardized the safety of communities, but, more importantly, torn apart families and contributed to an increasingly broken society.

Unfortunately, the recognition of this damage and the urgency to do something about it have been lost among the partisanship found on the campaign trail and in the halls of government. Thankfully, there are leaders in Washington doing what had seemed impossible: coming together on an issue that affects all Americans.

The Second Chance Reauthorization Act advances justice while seeking to reduce new crime. We encourage members of Congress to pass it.

Craig DeRoche, the former Republican speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, is president of Justice Fellowship. Benjamin Todd Jealous is former president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They can be reached at justicefellowship@pfm.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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