Michael Gerson

Addiction is a particular challenge. "When I was first locked up," Riddle explains, "there were more drugs inside than on the street. Through the years, that changed. Now it is more rare." Why the change? "Because they started screening the police coming in (and) started extensive searches of family coming in."

"But going to jail doesn't solve a drug problem. It is forced drug rehabilitation. People say, 'I'm going to get high the first day I'm out.'" Communities on Chicago's West Side offer few resources even for those who want to stay clean.

Riddle insists that the largest obstacles to finding a new life are internal. "The street, the hustle, is calling. You come back and don't want the lifestyle. Then you see people you knew. Those people didn't write you a letter in prison. They didn't tell your mother hello. But they see you, and it's like you've never been gone: 'You my man.' But you are not my friend. They don't give you money, they give you drugs, get you on a corner."

In fact, more than 50 percent of ex-offenders are in legal trouble again within three years. The call of the streets is itself, according to Riddle, a kind of "addiction." And many, in the stark transition from one day in total confinement to the next in total freedom, succumb. What returning felons need most, especially in the first months, is a safe transition zone, including housing, addiction treatment, job experience to begin building a resume and help with family reunification. All this is expensive -- but not so expensive as imprisonment. The Second Chance Act -- signed by President George W. Bush in 2008 -- encourages these services. President Barack Obama proposes to expand its funding. It is the sort of needed spending that should unite the parties.

Riddle considers himself "blessed." His daughter is in college getting a business degree. His job at Bethel gives him a sense of accomplishment. "They saw something in me," he says. That ability to see humanity beyond failure is what makes America the land of the second chance.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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