A new reentry program to reduce recidivism among nonviolent felons reaches an important juncture this month, as the first participants leave state prison?and enter a San Diego support network meant to keep them from returning.
The stakes are high: More than 170,000 people are incarcerated in California state prisons, and the vast majority of them ultimately reenter society. "We know that 95 percent of offenders who go to prison will eventually be released into the communities," says J. J. Anderson, a spokesperson for the San Diego County DA's office. But within three years, more than 60 percent wind up back behind bars, estimates indicate. California has one of the worst recidivism rates in the nation?and San Diego County's rate is higher still.
This is where the reentry program comes in. Launched under a California bill passed in 2005, the SB 618 San Diego Reentry Program gives eligible prisoners access to a variety of opportunities for vocational training, education, and rehabilitation?both in prison and upon release?with the aim of integrating them back into society. San Diego residents with a stipulated sentence going to either the California Institution for Women in Corona or the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego are eligible to be individually assessed and placed into the program sections with the greatest therapeutic potential. Each inmate selected for the program is assigned two caseworkers?professionals in psychology, social work, or education?who help the felons in prison and for 18 months after they are released, getting them into anger-management classes, for example, or Alcoholics Anonymous.
Over three years, some of the program's $9.8 million budget will go to studying whether the program reduces recidivism. But many other counties have already shown interest in starting similar programs, says Bill Sessa, deputy press secretary at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The law allows for a total of three SB 618 programs in California, and "interest is uniform statewide," Sessa says.
Wherever else the program is established, the bottom line will also be uniform: "We want them to use their prison time productively," says SB 618 project manager Vaughn Jeffery. "We want them to leave prison better off than when they came in."