Second chances

July 11, 2005

WHEN W. DWAYNE Edwards got out of prison in 2002, the odds were pretty good that he would be back in the joint by now. His past - small-time drug dealer and thief - should've put him in the class of ex-offenders, now 49 percent in Maryland, who return to prison within three years. But Mr. Edwards beat the odds.

Will and resolve account for part of his success. A group of people who supported him and stood by him when he faltered accounts for the rest. It's the latter that has made the critical difference in Mr. Edwards' return to society, support that most ex-offenders lack. About 650,000 offenders are released from state and federal prisons every year - and more of them need the kind of help that has given Dwayne Edwards a second chance.

Pending in Congress now is The Second Chance Act, which offers a no-frills approach to increasing services and aid for ex-offenders. It's a $110 million package that enlists state and local governments, non-profit and faith-based groups in the challenge of slowing the revolving door of America's prisons. The bill, with bipartisan support, rightly recognizes the social and financial impact of reincarceration on communities and families. Warehousing prisoners - but for the most incorrigible - has been an investment with few dividends. Nearly every state struggles with this issue and when House members review The Second Chance Act, they should move it forward without delay.

The measure would advance efforts by Maryland and other states to reduce recidivism among ex-offenders and establish a federal registry to track their progress. It also would offer grants to non-profit groups to develop transition programs for ex-offenders and help families care for children of imprisoned parents, whose numbers doubled to 2 million during the 1990s.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has backed a new corrections initiative aimed at better preparing some inmates for release, has encouraged his former Congressional colleagues to pass the bill. And for good reason: A decade of "get tough on crime" policies that overpopulated the country's prisons and assured that inmates would return at a steady clip has left many states paying more to warehouse inmates than to educate them at a public college.

The experience of Dwayne Edwards, 42, illustrates the basic needs of many ex-offenders and the possible payoffs of addressing them. His supporters found him a place at a halfway house overseen by a former correctional officer. They found him a job, with a contractor, Hirsch Electric, that paid a decent wage. They got him drug treatment when his freedom depended on it.

Dwayne Edwards has many people to thank for his second chance. But he's shown he was worth taking a chance on.

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