The Politics of Prisoner Rehabilitation

Governor Schwarzenegger wants to release 22,000 state prisoners early to help reduce a budget deficit in the billions of dollars. Already, 120,000 prisoners are scheduled for release this year. Few will get much help coming out and seven in ten will go back. In part four of our five-part series on prisoner reentry, KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports on the politics of rehabilitating prisoners. (This series was produced by Frank Stoltze as part of a fellowship with USC's Institute for Justice and Journalism.)

Frank Stoltze: Jeremy Travis recalls when he first got interested in helping prison inmates reenter society, nearly a decade ago. Back then, Travis was head of the National Institute of Justice.

Jeremy Travis: I was in a meeting with the then-Attorney General Janet Reno, and following the meeting, she pulled me aside with another colleague, and asked the two of us a question that came out of the blue, which was, "What are we doing about all the people coming out of prison?"

Stoltze: Travis, now president of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, became a leader in the prisoner reentry movement.

James Tilton (in address): These aren't convicts, these aren't parolees, these are our citizens coming back to our communities.

Stoltze: James Tilton heads California's prison system – renamed the Department of Corrections and rehabilitation four years ago. Last year, he and Governor Schwarzenegger toured the state touting "historic legislation" that provides money for small, 500 bed reentry prisons around California.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: They will house inmates who are close to their release date, and what will make this different is they will get great rehabilitation programs – like counseling, anger management, substance abuse, job training housing placement, and so on.

Stoltze: Critics of the $7.7 billion law say it was designed to satisfy federal judges concerned with overcrowding, and mostly funds more regular prison beds.

Melissa Birch: I'm not convinced.

Stoltze: Melissa Birch runs a reentry project for women in Watts.

Birch: Until we reverse those spending priorities and really put our dollars into rehabilitation, and treatment programs, and social services, then I really don't think we're talking about solving this problem.

Stoltze: The problem: two-thirds of parolees end up back in prison. Corrections officials acknowledge many counties are reluctant to host a prison, even if it focuses on reentry. In this region, only San Bernardino has shown interest. The first reentry prison is supposed to open in Stockton next year. This year, prison inmates and parolees shouldn't expect much, says Republican Assemblywoman Sharon Runner of Lancaster.

Sharon Runner: We have to set our priorities, and with this budget and this year, it's not a time to start the rehabilitation programs.

Stoltze: Even in good budget years, rehabilitation gets short shrift. Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters says it's seen as soft on criminals in a capitol where the prison guards' union, law enforcement lobbyists, and victims' rights groups wield great influence.

Dan Walters: The mantra in Sacramento has, you don't go wrong voting for a tougher crime bill, but you can go wrong if you vote against a tougher crime or you vote to liberalize in some way the systems.

Man at Sacramento rally: Good morning, welcome to Beyond Prisons Day. Anybody from Los Angeles here?

Stoltze: Families of inmates lobby legislators to do more for their loved ones. Doris Alleyne of Los Angeles, whose son is doing time, runs Save Our Sons.

Doris Alleyne: You know, there's a lot of talk about fatherlessness, about men being disengaged from their families. So I think the prison system is really destroying the African American community.

Stoltze: Blacks comprise 6% of California's population – 30% of prison inmates. Democratic State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas of Los Angeles:

State Senator Mark Ridley Thomas: I think there are some deep seeded punitive impulses that are hard to overcome, and they probably are racially tinged.

Stoltze: John Jay College President Jeremy Travis says Latinos are disproportionately imprisoned too.

Travis: In a very fundamental sense, we can promote the cause of racial justice by ensuring that we don't continue to demonize those who are sent off to prison, most of whom come from communities of color, by marginalizing them after they come out of prison.

Stoltze: Prisoner rehabilitation is on the political radar.

President George W. Bush: This year, some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society. We know from long experience that if they can't find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison.

Stoltze: Four years ago, President Bush announced a $300 million reentry initiative. Congress just passed the Second Chance Act. It provides more money for prisoner rehabilitation. L.A. has a pilot reentry court that diverts women from prison. Jeremy Travis says these are significant steps. But the man known as the father of prisoner reentry says only a fraction of the people returning home from prison receive significant help ending their lives of crime and successfully reintegrating into society.

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