Thanks in part to the federal Second Chance Act of 2008, states are finding creative ways to cut prison costs — now more than $52 billion a year nationwide — by making sure that people who are released from prison actually stay out.

The act, aimed at helping states and localities reduce recidivism, encourages changes like those that have already taken place in Kansas, Texas and Oregon. The states have expanded community-based drug treatment programs, improved postprison supervision and retooled parole systems that once shunted people back to jail not for actual crimes but for technical violations that are more cheaply and effectively dealt with through community-based sanctions like house arrest or mandatory drug treatment.

Still, states that want to cut recidivism rates deeply and permanently must also rethink thousands of laws and regulations that punish ex-offenders after they leave jail by denying them jobs, homes and basic credentials like drivers’ licenses.

The Obama administration has taken useful steps in this regard through the federal Re-entry Council, a multiagency group whose mission is to help remove some of the barriers that former offenders face when they try to rejoin society.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, has urged public housing agencies not to adopt blanket policies of excluding prospective tenants with conviction records and to take other factors, including a family’s willingness to participate in counseling programs, into account.

And last spring, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reinforced and clarified an old policy barring employers from automatically denying employment to people based on arrest or conviction records. The employer must consider the seriousness of the offense, the time that has passed since conviction and the relevance of the crime to the job in question.

One unfinished piece of business for Washington is to regulate the job-screening companies that routinely make disastrous errors when reporting criminal background information on job applicants.

The states’ main task is to prune the regulatory thicket that denies access to society. A recent federally financed study by the American Bar Association has cataloged more than 38,000 statutes — almost 700 per state and territory — that make it difficult, if not impossible, for ex-offenders to do all the things they need to do to pursue viable lives: vote, get jobs, obtain driver’s licenses, and a whole range of items that would help them rejoin the mainstream.

In a letter to state attorneys general last year, Attorney General Eric Holder said some statutes were justified. (Sex offenders, for instance, should be barred from working in schools.) But Mr. Holder urged the states to revisit laws that merely push former prisoners to resume lives of crime and, inevitably, drive up corrections costs.

Adam Lee Nemann
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Trial and Defense Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Law at Capital University, founder of Nemann Law Offices
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