70% of state’s released inmates return to prison, but San Mateo County program combats stat

James Cain, a former inmate, prepares to weld at Summit Steel Works, a company who hired him with the help of the Achieve 180 program. (Photo: Amanda Schwab)

Amanda Schwab contributed to this report.

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James Cain has just come to the San Mateo Service League headquarters after a long day at his job with Summit Steel Works in Mountain View, where he is an electrician and steel fabricator.

“They smile at me when I come to work,” he says. “And you don’t know what a smile means. Nobody’s frowning at me, or pulling their kids away.”

These are the reactions he has come to expect, as someone who has spent much of his life, locked up in California jails and prisons. Ex-convicts historically encounter massive difficulty finding employment once they finish their sentences, and often instead find themselves, once again, incarcerated. In fact, California has the highest adult recidivism rate in America. Seventy percent of prisoners returning to jail or prison within three years of their release.

The national recidivism figure is slightly less, at 67.5 percent, but that figure is heavily influenced by California’s statistics. After all, the state’s population comprises one tenth of the national total.

But a recently implemented, federally-funded program may be helping significantly, in the Bay Area, elsewhere in the state and nationwide.

The Second Chance Act of 2007 is a federal law designed to help discharged jail and prison inmates return successfully to society. The initiative began funding re-entry programs in 2009 with a $25 million appropriation from Congress and continued with $100 million in grant money the following year. San Mateo County, where Cain served his most recent sentence, was one of the law’s first beneficiaries.

Dr. Gary Dennis, the Justice Department’s senior policy advisor for corrections, played a significant role in drafting proposals for the Second Chance Act and ensuring its passage. “There’s a general feeling that we can’t afford to sustain the massive prison system that we’ve built, in California particularly,” Dennis said. “This act was a recognition by Congress that we needed to do something.”

And in San Mateo County, the need to do something has been abundantly clear. In line with statewide statistics, 70 percent of those sentenced in 2007-2008 had, on average, more than one prior jail admission within the past three years.

In October 2009, San Mateo County received a Second Chance Grant of $677,674 from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the agency in charge of dispensing the aid, and the county itself contributed an additional $753,986. The resulting program, known as Achieve 180, creates support networks for former inmates based on their particular needs. While almost all participants need help in securing housing and employment, the program also assists individuals with substance abuse treatment, gang prevention counseling or family restoration, for example.

So far, the program seems to be working well. “The county wanted to develop a strategic plan to address people coming out of our jails, and we’ve pretty much accomplished all of the milestones that we needed to accomplish to make this thing work,” said Steve Kaplan, Achieve 180’s project director. As of December 2010, it had enrolled 131 clients, and saw only a 10.68 percent return to custody rate with no new convictions. Due to the fact that Second Chance initiatives began very recently, very little other public data on their results is available.

The fact that it takes time to see these results may be putting these programs in jeopardy. “The county is in a difficult budget situation, and it really becomes an issue of whether there’s enough perceived value in the community,” Kaplan added.

Indeed, the county, state and country are all struggling with budget issues. Congress passed the Second Chance Act in 2007, before the current economic recession began, and future funding for it is uncertain at this point.

“We fund these programs when we’re feeling the economy can support them,” said Stanford Law professor Joan Petersilia, who is also the co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. “When the economy goes, they’re the first things to go. I think that’s what we’re seeing nationally.”

Those who are involved with the program, however, are confident that the government’s investment will more than pay off in the long run, by turning prisoners who cost taxpayers money into productive members of society.

“The people who are in these prison systems right now, if we turned out the majority of people who are in prison who really wanted to change, the economy would change,” said Cain, who counts himself among that number. “Someone who’s been starving won’t turn down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because it doesn’t have meat in it.”

Petersilia agrees. “Funding these programs makes good economic sense, but most people don’t have a long range way of thinking about it,” she said.

Cain, however, believes that Achieve 180 works not just because of the well-funded support network, but also because its participants are motivated to re-enter society. As someone who has spent much of the past two decades behind bars, Cain said he knows well how easy it is to fall quickly into habits that precipitate a fast return to incarceration.

“I’ve spent a third of my life locked up,” Cain said. He recounted a history of drug abuse, weapons offenses and gang activity, which found him in and out of jail for most of his adult life. His last stint ended in 2009, when he enrolled in Achieve 180.

“This revolving door is a bunch of people who have not got it in their mind that they need to go down a different road,” he insisted. “Either they don’t have the tools, or they don’t want to,”

“Once you eliminate that excuse, the people want to be different, they can do that. Before, it wasn’t like that. They turn you out with a felony, and you’re not trusted. They ask you on every application.”

Cain added that Achieve 180, operated by the Service League of San Mateo County, eliminated that issue. “They say: we’re going to get you a job. We’re going to get you an apartment.”

Cain had no welding skills prior to his release from jail, but Achieve 180 arranged training for him, and, subsequently, helped him get a job. He emphasizes the importance of employers who are open to and accepting of workers like himself with criminal histories but who are trying to reform: a program that sets up its participants with education and work accomplishes little if the graduate’s new supervisor inherently distrusts him or her.

“My boss, he actually let me sit with his son and teach him how to rap. He trusted me with his baby boy,” Cain fondly recalled. He also proudly points out that his employer entrusts him with the care and proper use of thousands of dollars worth of job-related equipment and machinery on a daily basis.

His supervisor at Steel Works, Hindry Hina, is an Iraqi immigrant who has worked with several former inmates, and continues to do so. “James is one of the best guys I’ve seen working in electrical,” Hina said. “I’m very happy with him. He doesn’t bother me. He works like any normal person would.”

The future of programs like Achieve 180 may be uncertain, but the results are unequivocally positive, so far. Standard recidivism statistics are taken over a three-year period, however. Still, even though there is only one year’s worth of data so far for Second Chance initiatives, it seems to be on track to show positive results in the long run.

“All indications are that we’re headed in the right direction,” Kaplan said. “The preliminary response is very good.”

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