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From meth addict to businessman: bread maker's story highlights policy agenda aimed at changing lives

Published: Saturday, Dec. 1 2012 6:50 p.m. MST

Dave Dahl today gets his high from rising loaves at Dave's Killer Bread in the Portland, Ore., area.

Dave's Killer Bread

Dave Dahl is most proud of his first creation, which he calls Blues Bread. The president of Dave’s Killer Bread, Dahl’s caricature — the burly, longhaired entrepreneur with his guitar — appears on every loaf. But this one, with its crunchy blue corn crust and a dark, grainy interior, was directly inspired by his love of the blues.

There is nothing small about Dahl’s record in small business. After joining his family’s Portland, Ore., bread business in 2005, Dahl introduced a line of wildly successful organic breads. Along the way he helped rebrand the company, now known as Dave’s Killer Bread, driving employee headcount from 35 to 283 and gross sales to $53 million in 2012.

This would all be impressive if Dahl were a prodigy fresh out of Harvard Business School. But Dahl is not a prodigy. He’s more of a prodigal son, having returned to the family business after spending 15 years of his life in prison.

Dahl’s story reflects an unhappy slice of Americana that exploded over the last generation. When Dahl left high school in 1981, 555,000 Americans were serving time. When he left prison in 2004, 2.1 million were behind bars, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics.

This is one place where the U.S. is now truly exceptional. By 2009, 744 of every 100,000 Americans were incarcerated in jails and prisons, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. That ratio dwarfs those of all all other advanced democracies.

A despotic regime like Cuba had fewer prisoners per 100,000 (510), as did a troubled democracy like Russia (505). South Africa had 310, and Singapore 237. The nearest advanced democracy to the U.S. was New Zealand, with just 194.

The impact of these high rates on crime is disputed, but the effect on state budgets is huge. From 1988 to 2008, state corrections spending nationwide grew from $12 billion a year to $55 billion, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, making it among the fastest-growing state budget items.

Prison costs vary, but in New Jersey it costs more to keep a state prisoner ($44,000 a year) than it does to pay tuition, room and board at Princeton ($37,000), according to a report in The Atlantic.

As costs grew, states cut corners. By 2009 California’s prison population reached 156,000, double its designed capacity, and prisoners were bunked in crowded gyms. In 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to slash its prison population by over 30,000 prisoners or build new prisons.

Scrambling to control costs, policymakers have found that the financial fix lies in helping people like Dave Dahl. Fiscal hawks have, almost inadvertently, recognized that sometimes taking care of people saves money. Both top down and bottom up, public officials are now aggressively innovating to help keep people out of prison. How that gets done is still a work in progress, but it is a work now widely embraced across the political spectrum.

Coming home

Before he became a hardened criminal, Dave Dahl was an unhappy apprentice in his family bakery who needed help but didn’t know it. “I was an extremely insecure teenager,” said Dahl. “I had really bad acne growing up. I couldn’t face myself in the mirror. My strongest memories of my youth involved contemplating suicide.”

Self-medication began early with marijuana, cocaine, acid and alcohol. Then he discovered methamphetamines. “Meth is such a powerful feeling. You couldn’t imagine anything else working like that, so you didn’t search any further. Whenever I had a chance, I’d go back.” Use and abuse led to sales and distribution, and he was soon heavily immersed in drug sales and property crime.

In 1997 Dahl was arrested five times in three counties and faced up to 20 years if he did not accept a plea bargain, which he did. Dahl would not see the outside of prison for seven more years.

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