State

Second chances good for everyone

Just a few days after ex-con quarterback Michael Vick's rehabilitation kicked off on national TV, a group of former fellow inmates at the U.S. Penitentiary, Leavenworth, began their journey toward life on the outside.

Vick got his shot at redemption in the form of a $1.6 million deal to play for the Philadelphia Eagles. He got Jesse Jackson preening about democracy and second chances. He got a kid-gloves treatment on "60 Minutes." He's doing publicity work for the Humane Society, so there's some chance that endorsement opportunities will eventually come his way.

The inmates Vick left behind at Leavenworth got a pantomime job fair.

These fairs are held at lockups around the nation. Volunteers arrive, set up job booths and let the inmates pretend they are seeking work.

Soon, they will be.

These are the ex-cons Americans ought to be entranced with, not Vick.

And I say that not as a bleeding heart liberal bent on finding redemption for anyone seeking it. This is about public safety, mine and yours.

Getting a job and a safe place to stay are the two things most likely to keep ex-convicts from returning to crime. More than 700,000 people will be released from federal and state prisons this year. An additional 9 million will be released from city or county jails.

You'll see Vick on TV. The other parolees could be the clerk at your grocery, the guy at the gas station, the trucker delivering goods, the person living down the block — that is, if they are lucky enough to find work and a safe place to sleep at night.

Many of these offenders, disproportionately black and Hispanic, will find that racial prejudice will hamper them from getting a much needed second chance. This after disparities in sentencing, especially drug convictions, has loaded prisons with minorities and literally let others escape with less severe penalties.

For a nation that does so much locking up, we tend to have a distorted idea of what happens next. The vast majority of those serving time are eventually released. They get out and encounter the not-so-crazy apprehensions of a society leery of their abilities to go straight.

Vick likely will never cost the nation again for his imprisonment.

Despite his despicable dog-fighting past, he isn't likely to start running in a gang, robbing houses to support a drug habit or car-jacking the innocent. Nor is he likely to wind up homeless, begging for a meal from a soup kitchen.

As long as he is famous and highly compensated, he will be surrounded by supporters, able to keep these outcomes at bay.

If Vick turns his life around, more power to him, on and off the field.

Come to think of it, Vick could do a great service working to help other young men from less than ideal backgrounds to stay out of trouble and out of prison.

What is there for these unfortunate ex-cons now? For one thing, there is the Second Chance Act of 2007, which established re-entry programs to help them train for jobs, stay sober and find mentors. A bill in the House of Representatives would up the funding to $100 million for 2010.

Tackling recidivism isn't just about giving ex-convicts a second chance; it's also about public safety. How much should that be worth to us? How much is $100 million? That's how much in lost income Michael Vick walked away from the day he got arrested.

THE KANSAS CITY STAR

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