revolving door

Welcome to California's prison system, where 80% of offenders return for a repeat stay. What happened to rehab?

Commit a crime, go to prison. Go to prison, and you stand an excellent chance of coming back, especially if your prison of prior residence is in the Golden State.

California has more than one problem when it comes to its prisons. The most pressing concerns include the Governor's scramble to restructure the system before it comes under a court-ordered receivership, and the push to find a legislative band-aid after a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision scrapped the state's 30-year-old sentencing law.

But behind everything is an ugly number that suggests deeply rooted policy failures both inside and beyond the prison walls; eight out of 10 offenders will eventually make their way back to jail in California.

What's going on here?

In 1975, of the 15,132 felons in prison, 1,649 were returned for either repeat offenses or parole violations.

In comparison, 2005 had 131,087 felons, of which 80,935 were returnees. The peak years of 2000-2002 had 85,440 returnees out of the 134,894 inmates.

Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman, (R-Orange County), has served on the judiciary committee since the mid 1990s. He calls the rehabilitation program that provides kindergarten through college education, and a vocational trade school training, "as good as it gets."

But with so many returnees to California prisons, how can it be anywhere near good enough?

"The program is effective and there are nonprofits that help the inmates assimilate once on the outside," Ackerman said. "We're looking at other options to decrease the recidivism rate."


Ex-felons say the key is changing society's attitudes about rehabilitated felons. "The public is convinced that once a bad guy, always a bad guy," said Ed Harrich of Los Angeles, who served time for a white-collar crime. "'That guy will revert back to crime to survive.' People don't want you in their neighborhood or working at their office."

Some 70% of convicted felons are from Southern California, while 11% from the Bay Area, the remaining 19% hailing from the remainder of the state, according to the California Corrections Standards Authority.

Crime, therefore, is a major issue for Freshman Assemblyman Kevin DeLeon, (D-Los Angeles). He says rehabilitation has failed southern Californians.

"A 75-80% recidivism rate screams that something is very wrong with the program," says DeLeon. "My area is the worst in the state. It's affecting our economy and innocent people killed in their homes by stray bullets coming through their walls during gang shootouts in the street."

His solutions include longer prison time for violent crimes, and no release until full sentence served.

Assemblyman Mike Duvall, (R-Yorba Linda), says he's pushing to spend the $10 billion on preventative programs.

What would do more than anything to remedy our prison crisis and make our communities safer is "an education system that actually educates," Duvall argues. "Make skilled vocational training mandatory in high school."

In the meantime, the revolving door continues to spin.