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Kamala D. Harris Headshot

Finding the Path Back on Track

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Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. By that measure, our current approach to criminal justice may need a shrink -- and a new way of doing business.

The old approach to fighting crime is well-known. Police and prosecutors are deluged with low-level drug cases, and the public spends billions on prisons to house these offenders. And, every year, prisons release hundreds of thousands of these offenders back into our communities. They're sent back with a bus ticket and a little cash in hand -- and that's about it. They have no plan, no skills, nowhere to go, and no other changed circumstances. They pick up right where they left off; within three years of release, seven out of ten California prisoners will re-offend and return to prison.

After decades of this sad cycle, our prisons are swollen beyond capacity and our budgets maxed. Across the country, leaders are acknowledging that we've been missing a crucial opportunity all along. Perhaps the most crucial step in the criminal justice process is the most often ignored -- what happens after the conviction and prison sentence, when the prisoner comes home.

We've learned that low-level drug offenders are far less likely to re-offend if they transition into the community with basic skills and a plan for staying crime-free. That crucial transition from crime to the community -- called "reentry" in criminal justice-speak -- is what we've taken advantage of in San Francisco, where I serve as the elected District Attorney.

In 2005, I created an initiative called Back On Track. It's a reentry program designed for nonviolent, first-time drug offenders. These are young people who we'd call college kids under different circumstances -- mostly in their early 20's, they have no prior criminal records and were caught for low-level drug offenses. None of their cases involves gangs, guns, or weapons. But they've all arrived at the program via squad car and are facing a first felony conviction.

We give them a choice: they can go through a tough, year-long program that will require them to get educated, stay employed, be responsible parents, drug test, and transition to a crime-free life, or they can go to jail. My prosecutors tell me that many defendants have heard the stories about the program and choose jail instead; jail's easier, they say. Here's why: Those who choose Back On Track plead guilty to their crime, and their sentence is deferred while they appear before a judge every two weeks for about a year. They must obtain a high-school-equivalency diploma and hold down a steady job. Fathers need to remain in good standing on their child-support payments, and everyone has to take parenting classes. For people who hit all of these milestones, the felony charge is going to be cleared from their records.

The results speak for the wisdom of investing in reentry programs. For this population, the recidivism (or re-offense rate) is typically 50 percent or higher. Four years since the creation of this initiative, recidivism has been less than 10 percent among Back On Track graduates. And the program costs only $5,000 per person, compared to over $35,000 a year for county jail. That saves our city roughly $1 million per year in jail costs alone. When you add in the total expense of criminal prosecutions to taxpayers, including court costs, public defenders, state prison, and probation, the savings are closer to $2 million. And we cannot even begin to quantify the value of these individuals' future productivity, taxes and child support payments, or the brightened prospects for their families.

These are the kinds of results every community should demand from our system of justice. That's why California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass sponsored AB 750, the Back On Track Reentry Act of 2009, which established Back On Track as a model reentry program for California counties. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law earlier this month. The National District Attorney's Association and U.S. Department of Justice have selected Back on Track as a model re-entry program for prosecutors' offices across the country.

Similar programs across the nation -- from Atlanta to Brooklyn to Oakland -- are also having tremendous success. Newly elected Philadelphia DA Seth Williams, voted into office last week, included Back On Track in his campaign platform. This all goes to show that many leaders are casting aside the outdated thinking that has choked off innovation in criminal justice for too long. They're trying something new. Just as important as the result is the dialogue we're starting, which represents momentum and hope for a more rational, progressive and effective approach to making our communities safer across the nation.