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

He reached rock bottom in 2001, finally realizing there was no happy outcome where he was heading. Increasingly suicidal, he sought help from prison doctors, and for the first time got real depression medication — instead of meth.

The change was quick and powerful. Dahl had played the guitar for years, but now saw his music skills take off. A training program in computer-aided design clicked for him. “I started feeling I could do whatever came at me,” Dahl said.

With a new sense of purpose, Dahl reached out to his brother, Glenn, indicating that he wanted to return to the bread business. Glenn, who had long-since given up on Dave, reciprocated. Dahl left prison for good in 2004 and began relearning the family business with Glenn’s support. Soon Dahl was creating unique organic bread recipes, and sales and distribution exploded.

“Most of those released from prison today have serious social and medical problems,” wrote Joan Petersilia in her 2003 book "When Prisoners Come Home." “They remain largely uneducated, unskilled, and usually without solid family support. And now they have the added stigma of a prison record.”

As criminal stories go, Dave Dahl’s is both typical and unusual. Repeated cycles of failure, a link between drug use and property crime, and a “dual diagnosis” where addiction masks depression are all common features. But Dahl is exceptional in that he had a stable family and career to come home to.

Lost time

Dahl’s recovery after four failures is a hopeful data point for a small cluster of policymakers who have dedicated their careers to keeping people like him out of prison. These reformers range from high-level administrators in federal government to judges on the bench.

Among the former is Jeremy Travis, who during the Clinton years headed the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department. Travis recalls being pulled aside one day by then-Attorney General Janet Reno. “What are we doing for all the people coming home from prison?” Reno asked.

“It was that simple, and that out of blue,” Travis said. “I don’t know Ms. Reno,” Travis answered, “but I will find out.” “Get back to me in two weeks,” Reno replied.

To answer Reno’s question, Travis built a team of researchers. But it took them a bit more than two weeks. They began by asking the obvious question: How many return home from American prisons each year? “When I found the answer,” Travis said, “which at that time was 585,000 (return home each year), I gasped.” What Travis did not know was that the curve was still spiking and would soon rise to well over 700,000 coming home a year.

Sensing urgency, Travis and his team sprinted through the waning days of the Clinton administration, working to frame issues and fund programs. In October 2000 they held high-level meetings to set the agenda, and Clinton’s final budget included funding for demonstration projects.

From that moment, Travis was obsessed with what became known as “prisoner reentry,” a term he put into wide usage and movement he helped found. The movement’s core idea is expressed in the title of Travis’ 2005 book: "But They All Come Back." In short, he argues, you can lock them up for a few more months or a few more years, but with few exceptions you will see them back in your community. To be safe and save money, Travis argues, you better figure out how people change.

“I felt that we had to make up for lost time, that we as a country had ignored this inevitable consequence of putting more and more people in prison,” said Travis, now president of the John Jay School of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

Many involved see Travis as the driving force in the new policy agenda. “He’s got this very quiet, persuasive quality. He’s like the stealth influencer,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, one of the nation’s most influential think tanks.

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