Public safety, back on track

Pub date November 7, 2007
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION About a year and a half ago, James was dealing drugs on a street corner in San Francisco. He wasn’t a hardened repeat offender, just a young man with little education and few prospects. He got arrested and soon faced adult felony drug charges for the first time.

California law sets the punishment for selling narcotics at up to three years in state prison. But we know that 7 out of every 10 people we send to California prisons will commit a new crime within three years of being released — the worst recidivism rate in the nation. If James ended up in state prison, there was a 70 percent chance that he would go straight back in a few years after his release, and we would actually be less safe, not more, for our trouble.

So instead of business as usual, we decided to try something new. We sent him to Back on Track, a program established by a reentry initiative created by my office in partnership with Goodwill Industries, other community service providers, and the business sector. After a year and half, Back on Track had put this former offender into the workforce and gotten him off the street.

Since we launched the initiative, more than 100 former offenders have successfully completed Back on Track. In the process, we’ve learned a lot about public safety and how to change the broken policies of the past that have crowded our prisons and jails without making us safer.

For decades, beginning with the war on drugs, there were only two brands of law enforcement: tough and soft. For decades we’ve chosen to get tough, but it’s mostly been tough on us: we’ve filled our state prisons to the breaking point with low-level offendersmostly drug offenders.

Isn’t there a smarter way to keep us safe?

Through Back on Track we’re initiating a new brand of law enforcement. Low-level drug offenders are referred to Back on Track, where they face swift sanctions for making bad choices and clear incentives for making good ones. The participants receive the basic opportunities for living crime-free that most of us take for granted: concrete job training and employment; union-based preapprenticeships in the building trades; college enrollment and help navigating financial aid; tutoring, money management, and banking instruction; child care, anger management, and parenting support. That’s the carrot, but there’s a stick too. Drug sellers must plead guilty to enter the program, and if they are rearrested or terminated from the program, they go straight to jail — no excuses.

Fewer than 10 percent of Back on Track graduates reoffend — and the program costs only $5,000 per participant, compared to $35,000 per year to house them in jail.

In October we held a graduation ceremony for Back on Track, one of four we’ve hosted since we launched the initiative. James was among the 13 young men and women who graduated. Today all 13 have full-time jobs or are working while they go to school. None have reoffended. More than 100 people currently in the program are following in their footsteps. Every day they’re teaching us that even a modest investment in people, coupled with accountability and clear guidance, can keep our community safe.

Kamala D. Harris

Kamala D. Harris is San Francisco’s district attorney.