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Coming Home

As California releases more inmates to relieve overcrowding, Oakland and San Francisco have developed innovative programs to deal with the influx. But there are many challenges ahead.



Former inmate-turned-entrepreneur Anthony Forrest has learned how to adapt to consumer preferences in the Bay Area. On a recent weekday in San Francisco, the Oakland resident stood outside the Jackson Square Safeway, wearing a 49ers jersey and an Oakland Raiders hat as he enthusiastically chatted up passersby. "I wanted to catch people's attention," Forrest said of his strategy for securing donations for Planting Justice, an Oakland-based organization that gave him a job when he got out of prison. "I just put the hat on to see how many people it attracted. ... I know how to roll whatever they say, you know."

Forrest, 52, is both an exception and an exemplar. As a felon who recently returned home after spending time at San Quentin State Prison, he is one of thousands of former inmates who now live throughout Oakland, the East Bay, and the state. He's also part of a national shift that is reversing the trend of three decades of mass incarceration.

Each year California releases about 60,000 inmates from state prisons, not including those who are "re-paroled" after being sent back to prison for violating parole, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). As one of roughly 6,000 former prisoners who return to the East Bay each year, Forrest faced low odds of success. Statewide, 61 percent of inmates released in 2010 had re-offended and gone back to prison by 2013. Over the past two decades, the state's recidivism rate has fluctuated between 60 and 80 percent.

But as one of the first eight graduates of an innovative reentry program called Pathways to Resilience, a collaboration between seven Oakland-based organizations, Forrest had a significant advantage over other former state inmates. And thanks to the program Planting Justice, Forrest had a job, making $17.50 an hour, when he got out of prison. Forrest praised the founders of Planting Justice, crediting them with his renewed determination to succeed. "They are all about help and change and that's all there is to it," he said. Recently, he launched a small business of his own, thereby further improving his chances for success and for having a positive impact on his community.

Typically, inmates released from prison encounter numerous roadblocks when it comes to locating housing, forming new relationships, breaking with past associations and activities, finding treatment for addiction, dealing with poverty, and attempting to land a job in a world in which many people view them as incompetents or worse. "When you are working with people coming out of jail or prison, there are a lot of obstacles, whether it be housing, a treatment issue, a job, whether it be a re-incarceration issue," explained Debra Mendoza, an activist and former parole officer, during a recent Pathways to Resilience graduation ceremony in Oakland.

Pathways to Resilience is one of several model reentry programs in Oakland that have attracted attention from around the country over the past few years. The city has been at the forefront of creating innovative programs designed to help ex-inmates gain job skills, find employment and housing, and avoid being sent back to prison. But Oakland also has its own challenges. For starters, the city has not fully recovered from the Great Recession and still has a relatively high unemployment rate, so finding jobs for released prisoners is difficult.

Across the bay, San Francisco has become a leader in so-called pretrial diversion programs, which keep people out of prison, and so they don't face the problems associated with returning to society. In a state in which 75 percent of those arrested are unable to post bail, San Francisco's effort to release people awaiting trial from custody — the city monitors about 1,000 right now — is truly progressive, according to experts in the field.

"San Francisco is head and shoulders above the rest," said Jessica Flintoft, community outreach liaison for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Pretrial diversion programs result in about 4,000 fewer inmates returning to San Francisco County than Alameda County each year. "Alameda County has hardly any pretrial [diversion programs]," Flintoft said. "So there are so many people in Alameda County sitting in jails. We wouldn't have such a daunting task with reentry if we didn't keep them incarcerated before they are convicted."

San Francisco, however, is not without problems, including a rate of recidivism that is generally higher than the statewide average. According to a 2013 CDCR report, 78.3 percent of former inmates from San Francisco went back to prison within three years of release in 2010. By contrast, Alameda County's recidivism rate is 59 percent.

In addition to a general lack of progressivism when it comes to reentry programs, San Francisco suffers from an extreme housing shortage. Moreover, the housing that is available is typically much too expensive for returning prisoners, who, as a result, sometimes end up homeless, camping out in city parks or under overpasses or sleeping in storefronts.

In short, there are still many barriers facing returning prisoners whether they end up in Oakland or across the bay. "We realize the system is broken," Mendoza said. "And we need to change it."

The US criminal justice system has recently begun to undergo a dramatic paradigm shift. The nation's four-decade-long infatuation with tough-on-crime policies and long prison sentences has started to give way to growing concerns about prison overcrowding and its associated costs. Even some Republicans are starting to talk about the need for reform. Indeed, it's a safe bet that criminal justice reform will be part of the 2016 national presidential platforms of both of the major political parties — regardless of who the eventual nominees are.

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