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Koch: 'Second Chance' program should be first choice

THERE ARE about 2 million people currently behind bars in federal, state, and local correctional facilities around the country. The average sentence for felons is 51/2 years. Nearly 500,000 of these prisoners are released each year.

What happens to them? Unfortunately many return to drugs and crime because they find it difficult to secure decent jobs, obtain educational loans, locate housing and get married.

Some even lose their right to vote.

In order to help solve this monumental problem, I began, about five years ago, developing the Second Chance program. It's designed to give people who have been convicted of a nonviolent felony or misdemeanor (e.g. drug or property offenses) a "second chance" by providing them with the opportunity to obtain a pardon and have their criminal records sealed. So when they are asked by prospective employers if they "have ever been convicted of a crime," they can honestly respond, "no." In order to earn this second chance, however, they must fulfill certain requirements. For example, they must remain crime free for at least five years, perform community service and, where applicable, complete alcohol or drug abuse treatment, develop job skills, and earn a GED. They would then be eligible to file an application to have their records sealed. Sealing criminal records restricts access to them, but this information remains available to the courts and law enforcement officers.

While the Second Chance program is not intended to provide preferential treatment to blacks or other minorities, there is no question the black community will especially benefit. Why? Because a larger percentage of that community is involved in the criminal justice system. 8.6 percent of black non-Hispanic males age 25 to 29 were in state or federal prison in 1997. In contrast, only 2.7 percent of Hispanic males and about 0.9 percent of white males in the same age group were incarcerated during the same year. Furthermore, nearly one out of three (29 percent) black males between the ages of 20-29 is under some form of correctional control (i.e., in prison, jail, on parole or probation).

A few years ago, Prof. Charles Ogletree, a professor of criminal law at Harvard, agreed to join me in my efforts to develop this proposal. Recently, we enlisted the help of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who brought a great deal of attention to the project.

In September, we sent material about Second Chance to the presidential candidates, several governors, and academics. The response thus far has been very positive.

Gov. George Pataki wrote: "I agree with your concern and that of your colleagues over the need to assist non-violent offenders' reintegration into the community." Gov. George W. Bush wrote that "during the legislative interim, the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice will study issue of expungement and make recommendations for consideration by the 77th legislature." At a recent public meeting, presidential candidate Bill Bradley also said he thought that the Second Chance program is a good idea. And Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard wrote: "This is one of the most positive, useful, and progressive proposals I have seen." Last week, Prof. Ogletree, the Rev. Sharpton and I met with two leaders of the Massachusetts legislature, Thomas Finneran (speaker of the House of Representatives) and Thomas Birmingham (president of the Senate), to urge them to support the Second Chance proposal. They said they were impressed and would have the proposal analyzed.

Next Wednesday, we are headed to Washington to present the Second Chance proposal to the Congressional Black Caucus and others.

The statistics related to recidivism are horrifying. The most recent report by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics on this subject demonstrates that of "three-year re-imprisonment (recidivism) rates conducted in nine states, the rates range from 31 percent in Alabama to 46 percent in Illinois." Another report shows that of the total number of prisoners sentenced under state jurisdiction, half committed nonviolent property or drug related offenses. Of the more than 200,000 drug offenders in state prison, one-third had no prior sentences or had sentences for only drug violations in the past.

From time to time, various efforts are made to solve this problem, to date nothing has worked.

We believe the Second Chance program will help reintegrate former offenders into society without additional risks. We don't think that these offenders are modern Jean Valjeans of "Les Miserables" fame, but do believe it is in the interest of society to substantially reduce recidivism.

Second Chance, if implemented, may just do that.