Cory Booker has a problem and he knows it. It’s not enough that he is the new mayor of a city that has been about as functional as Haiti for 25 years. But on top of this, he is running a city where, each year, about 1,500 unmarried, semiliterate drug addicts with no job skills come home from prison.
There is, of course, a certain diversity among those returning to Newark, New Jersey, just not enough that matters. Ten percent are not men. An even smaller percentage are not black. There are few who read above the sixth-grade level. About one in five do not have a drug addiction problem, and about one in 20 had some vocational training behind bars. Three years after they return from prison, only one out of three will not have been arrested again.
There was a time when ex-offenders returning to Newark only trickled back in. Nancy Fishman of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice remembers when her organization was helping ex-cons below the board, but officially denying it since people who had done time were viewed as a numerically marginal bunch of “nondeserving poor.”
But, today, ex-offenders are flooding Newark, over half of them are returning to the struggling neighborhoods of the Central and Southern Wards.
Newark is a microcosm of a nationwide problem. Each year, 650,000 prisoners are released in America, and this is the black community’s most serious problem. The black left is outraged that ex-offenders are often not allowed to vote. However, despite the thrills of being able to tap into audience-baiting references to disenfranchisement, the poll tax, and so on, this obsession with the voting issue neglects a welter of other problems.
Voting is the last thing on an ex-felon’s mind. Instead, what he is thinking about is figuring out how to provide himself with the basic necessities —where to work, where to live, and who to be. Without help, too often he ends up back on the corner, where for a brief spell he creates more strife in his already burdened community, and before long he is back in prison.
A certain consensus would show that this issue is the last thing the Bush administration is concerned about. Compassionate conservatism is, after all, a joke, we are taught. However, attending a White House press conference last week on the Bush administration’s long-term commitment to prisoner re-entry programs, I was reminded that, as so often, that certain consensus is wrong.
Remember the Faith-Based Initiatives that the Bushies promoted back in 2000 and 2001, designed to shunt funds to religious charity organizations in struggling communities so that poor people could learn to help themselves? Democrats — suddenly decrying the possibility of discrimination on the basis of faith, although numb to discrimination when it comes to racial preferences at universities — hunted down the initiatives idea like a varmint. But they didn’t kill it — the initiative just huddled up and went into hiding.
One program the initiatives have been aimed at is called Ready4Work, principally funded by the Department of Labor. Ready4Work was set up in 2003 as a pilot program in 17 sites across the country with an emphasis on mentoring, and designed to provide ex-offenders with a network of services.
The results speak for themselves: after a year, the number of its clients who went back to prison was 50% lower than that of the national average, and testimonials from the clients glowed. This sparked the Prisoner Re-entry Initiative that President Bush mentioned in his 2004 State of the Union address. It wasn’t just words — it’s been in operation ever since.
Sociologists muse endlessly about disadvantaged people’s “lack of agency.” Among legal scholars, the Critical Race Theory school of thought savors the notion of criminals as noble transgressors of an evil status quo. Kanye West informs us after Hurricane Katrina that President Bush doesn’t care about black people, and black thinkers have been sagely reaffirming that in panels, symposia, editorials, and blogs ever since.
Meanwhile, though, I am in a room full of congressional aides —Democratic and Republican, black and white, religious and secular, all on fire in a full-bore effort to pass a bill that will put effective re-entry programs on a national scale. I can’t help wondering how many of the people scoffing at the term, “compassionate conservatism,” have even heard of the Second Chance Act.
Maybe something like the Second Chance Act is less interesting to them because it doesn’t offer anything to rage against and feel superior to. But it remains, in all of its lack of drama, the most pressing civil rights activism of our times.
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