07/25/2014 02:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Power of Second Chances

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I got a first-hand look at how our criminal justice system could be used to transform lives -- not just punish -- while serving as a prosecutor in the San Francisco District Attorney's Office.

In one case, an 18-year-old young woman was arrested for selling drugs on a San Francisco street corner. She normally would have ended up behind bars for a felony conviction that would have followed her for the rest of her life. Instead, she pled guilty, accepted responsibility and entered an innovative re-entry program for nonviolent, first-time drug offenders. During the program, she was closely supervised and provided the resources and support she needed to turn her life around. Among the requirements: enrolling in school, performing community service and getting a full-time job. She thrived in the program. After graduating, she received a full scholarship to attend a university and finished her first semester with a 3.8 GPA.

The program, called Back on Track, was one of the first re-entry programs in a District Attorney's Office. It would go on to become a national model, reducing re-offense rates from 53 percent to less than 10 percent while saving tax dollars -- the program cost about $5,000 per person, compared to more than $50,000 to spend a year county jail. Perhaps even more importantly, it helped save lives and strengthen families and communities. The power of second chances was never more evident than at the yearly Back on Track graduation ceremonies. There, smartly dressed mothers, fathers, siblings, children and community members celebrated the young graduates as they prepared to embark on much more hopeful futures.

For far too long, our criminal justice system has been stuck using one gear -- the incarceration gear. We lock up too many people for far too long, for no good reason, and we're doing so at great economic, human and moral cost. As a prosecutor, I saw the same offenders arrested, prosecuted and locked up, only to come back time and time again. I saw low-level, nonviolent offenders return from prison and jails more hardened and posing a greater threat to our communities than when they went in. And I saw African Americans and Latinos arrested and jailed at egregiously greater rates than whites.

Our "incarceration only" approach to public safety has left us with bloated prisons and jails, wasted tax dollars and sky-high recidivism rates (more than half of those behind bars end up back in prison within three years after they are released). Today, though, there are some very heartening signs that we may be ready to leave failed policies behind. A bipartisan effort currently is underway to reform federal drug sentencing laws, with leaders from both sides of the aisle calling for new approaches to address mass incarceration. At the state and local levels, a handful of states -- such as Texas and New York -- are closing prisons by using evidence-based programs and funding services that are designed to reduce re-offending. A movement to "ban the box" also is growing around the country, with cities, counties and states choosing to give formerly incarcerated people a fair chance at the job opportunities they need to get back on track.

What else can we do to redesign our system and achieve justice, increase public safety and transform lives?

At the front end, we can stop over-incarcerating low-level drug offenders and the mentally ill, and instead, champion sentencing reform. Decades-old War on Drugs penal code sections in most states treat non-violent drug offenses as felonies, which means people end up with significant time behind bars and lifelong consequences, instead of getting the addiction treatment and services they need.

We can demand smart solutions that use our prisons and jails for those who have committed the most serious and violent crimes, while using proven strategies, such as probation supervision, drug courts and other treatment-focused services, for people who have been convicted of low-level offenses. Job and education-focused programs like Back on Track create pathways to productive lives at a fraction of the cost of incarceration.

On the back end, we can make sure that people who have served time and paid their dues to society have the support, services and a real shot at a fair chance to build new lives, reconnect with their families and stay out after they get out.

We can also use the savings from reducing the number of people behind bars to fund programs that help victims of crime and violence and prevent crime from happening in the first place. Interestingly enough, a recent survey by Californians for Safety and Justice found that even crime victims don't believe that prisons and jails rehabilitate people. Instead, a majority of crime victims believe we send too many people to prison, and they called for more investment in education, mental health and drug treatment, supervised probation and rehabilitation.

It's time to shift gears on criminal justice and embrace proven approaches that can not only give people a second chance but also ensure safety for our communities. That's what our justice system was supposed to do in the first place.

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