By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008
President Bush yesterday reached across traditional political dividing lines to sign into law a broad program that provides federal grants for assistance to ex-convicts, pointing to his own struggle with alcohol addiction as an example of redemption.
The Second Chance Act represents a bit of accommodation by Bush during his final months in office, even as his relations with congressional Democrats continue to deteriorate over Iraq war policy, housing assistance and, as of yesterday, an apparently doomed Colombian trade agreement.
During a signing ceremony at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the president was flanked by lawmakers from both parties, including frequent foe John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), a key backer of the bill.
"We believe that even those who have struggled with a dark past can find brighter days ahead," Bush said in his remarks, which included numerous references to renewal and a brief mention of his own vow years ago to quit drinking.
The new law has broad support among prisoner advocacy groups, liberal criminal-justice organizations, and many Democrats who otherwise differ with Bush or his policies. It grew out of at least five years of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans, partly about the participation of religious organizations in counseling financed by Washington, according to administration officials, lawmakers and others involved in the process.
The law would provide $326 million in grants to local governments and nonprofit groups for various programs aimed at departing or former convicts, including housing and medical assistance, drug treatment and employment services. Appropriations for the grants still await approval by Congress and Bush, however.
The compromise allows "faith-based" nonprofit groups to receive grants but would not include direct participation by churches, temples or other purely religious entities, officials said.
Davis, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who has represented his Chicago district since 1997, said a compromise was reached because both Democrats and Republicans agree that more needs to be done to accommodate the 650,000 people released from U.S. prisons and jails each year.
"I've been talking to the president for a good little while about this," Davis said. "We knew all along that conceptually, the White House was in agreement, but we needed to work on the details and technicalities."
Since his 2000 election campaign, Bush has billed himself as a "compassionate conservative" and has made faith-based programs a central part of his domestic policy agenda.
At the same time, the administration has advocated longer prison sentences for many crimes over the last seven years. It also strongly opposes new guidelines from the U.S. Sentencing Commission reducing sentences for those convicted of crack-cocaine-related crimes, many of whom were black and were given far longer prison terms than whites convicted of using powder cocaine.
Current and former White House aides characterize Bush's approach as a marriage of get-tough sentencing policies with sympathy for those who have made mistakes, often because of alcohol or drug addiction. James Towey, who served as Bush's director of faith-based initiatives from 2002 to 2006, noted that aspects of the Second Chance Act are based on pilot programs that Bush announced in 2004.
"He is deeply touched by these stories of transformation," said Towey, now president of Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto compared Bush's support of the Second Chance Act to administration initiatives to combat AIDS and malaria in the developing world, efforts to combine a moral goal with pragmatic concerns.
"It's the confluence of a belief in the power of redemption, which is something that he feels strongly about, and the practical side of it," Fratto said. "He doesn't believe our prisons should be crime factories."
Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said she supports the prisoner reentry initiative, but she hopes that Bush will also begin focusing on easing sentencing policies that have led to record incarceration rates.
"If we're concerned [about] people coming out of prison, maybe we should think about how many people are going to prison in the first place," Stewart said. "This is the back end of the problem. We need to look at the front end."
At the end of yesterday's ceremony, Bush made an oblique reference to his past drinking and said his sobriety is a "product of a faith-based program," albeit not a government-sponsored one.
Bush has frequently referred to a drinking problem that he overcame at age 40, but many details remain obscured. He has often used his history with alcohol as a symbol of the ability to overcome mistakes or hardship. "I quit drinking -- and it wasn't because of a government program," Bush said. "It required a little more powerful force than a government program, in my case."