Senator's aim misses mark on prison reform

In his first term in the Senate, the somewhat dramatic Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has stood up for several issues. Sometimes in opposition to his own party, Coburn's taken on his colleagues' budget use and tackled federal waste with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., by posting the national budget online.Despite a past highlighted by radical statements against gays and abortions, Coburn's become a legitimate force of restraint in the Senate. First elected to the House of Representatives in 1994, Coburn began his Senate career in 2004. On his Web site, Coburn outlines his stance on several typical issues: education, health care, social security, tax reform, et cetera. Still in his first Senate term, another major impact of Coburn has been his blocking of one particular piece of legislation. Among the "issue statements" summarized on Coburn's Web site, his rhetoric runs silent about the prison system. For this silence, Coburn doesn't deserve any extra attention. Since felons forever lose their right to vote, most congressmen don't prioritize prison reform very highly. Coburn does deserve attention for his repeated objections to the Second Chance Act, outlined by President Bush in 2004 and introduced as legislation in the same year.The bill would offer grant money to help transition inmates back into their communities. Among other programs, these grants would sponsor community college partnerships, post-release housing and substance abuse treatment; they would also create both a federal interagency taskforce and a national resource center dedicated to researching and improving the effectiveness of ex-convict re-entry programs. The bill had bipartisan support from the House and the Senate, sponsored by senators Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Joe Biden, D-N.Y., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan. Coburn, however, punctured efforts to pass the bill in the last session of Congress by demanding revisions and ultimately putting a hold on the bill in the closing days of legislation. He said such re-entry programs should be funded by state initiatives. It's a legitimate argument, particularly to someone as budget conscious as Coburn, but the current methods are failing. According to the Bureau of Judicial Services, recidivism rates remained just below 50 percent within a three-year window of release in both 1983 and 1994. Now that rate has risen to nearly two-thirds. Fewer than half of all incarcerated people have a high school diploma to show employers. While 66 percent of jail jurisdictions do offer educational programs, only 5 percent offer vocational training, even though vocational training has been shown to increase the likelihood of post-release employment. Ex-convicts' official support network is even more unrealistic. Current funding offers one social worker for every 685 inmates. If these social workers worked 12-hour days without any breaks for five days a week, they'd have five and a half minutes for each of their inmates. Need more statistics? Check out the Re-Entry Policy Council's Web site.The source of the money doesn't matter: these conditions are loathsome. Coburn has stood up for many good causes since his election to the Senate. But if he doesn't want a federal initiative, then he should lead by example with state-funded prison reform in Oklahoma. Until he does, the Senator should sit down this time.

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