Most of those released from prison today have serious social and medical problems. They remain largely uneducated, unskilled, and usually without solid family support. And now they have the added stigma of a prison record. —Joan Petersilia, author
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.
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.
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.
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.
State of the Union
After Clinton left office, the George W. Bush administration continued funding research projects Travis and Reno had proposed. Then came a moment no one expected and few involved will forget. It occurred in 2004, as Dave Dahl prepared to leave prison for the fourth time.
“America is the land of the second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life,” said President Bush in his 2004 State of the Union address.
“We know from long experience that if released inmates can’t find work or a home,” Bush said, “they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison.” He proposed a $300 million initiative for projects improving the odds of returning prisoners.
“It was stunning from any president, let alone from a conservative Republican, ” Travis said. “And then to announce what became the Second Chance Act as a State of the Union initiative was remarkable.”
“Clearly it was in part about his own personal journey,” said Lavigne, referring to Bush’s successful battle with alcoholism. “And I think in part it was his faith that attracted him to the topic.”
The result was a rare moment of bipartisanship when Congress in 2007 passed the Second Chance Act to fund programs aimed at “safe and successful reintegration.”
Spurred by federal funding and the need to control their own costs, states began experimenting with alternatives, and by 2012, more than half the states had comprehensive “justice reinvestment” programs, which aimed to shift resources from incarceration toward treatment and prevention.
HOPE in Hawaii
But not everyone was waiting for a shove from above. Some of the most startling innovations emerged at the ground level. Out in Hawaii, for example, Judge Steven Alm realized shortly after he was appointed to the bench in 2001 that the incentives and signals in the probation system were all wrong.
Probationers and probation officers functioned in a murky world, Alm said. If probationers missed an appointment or failed a drug test, they would be warned, warned and warned again — until problems got big and the offender went to prison. Probation officers lacked flexible tools. “A judge years ago said of regular probation,” Alm said, “‘I can send them to prison or I can send them to the beach.’”
So in 2004 he launched his own program. “I thought to myself, 'this is crazy,'” Alm said, “'There has be a better way to change offender behavior.'"
Alm’s alternative, which he dubbed the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, was based on how he was raised and how he raised his own child. “If you don’t have consequences for failure, you are going to get more failure,” Alm said.
Addicts in the HOPE program are warned at the outset that there is no margin for error. They must call a drug-test hotline every weekday and are randomly called in, based on color-coded groups. If they fail to show up, they automatically spend three days in jail, with no discussion and no excuses. Not even a doctor’s note gets them off the hook. The only excuse is if they are actually in the hospital. “Your color is going to come up once or twice a week when you start, and at least six times a month,” Alm said. “You can guess for awhile, but you’re going to get caught.”
Probationers who succeed never see the judge again, while those who fail a test automatically go to jail for a brief stay. “We have it set up so they get consequences. But it’s swift, it’s certain and it’s proportionate.”
Swift, certain, small
Or, as Angela Hawken from Pepperdine University puts it, “swift, certain and small.” When Hawken did a rigorous random assignment study of HOPE, funded by the National Institute of Justice, results were dramatic. Hawken found participants 55-percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime, 72-percent less likely to use drugs, and 53-percent less likely to have probation revoked.
All study participants were active drug users when the study began, but 51 percent of those in HOPE did not fail a single drug test in the first year, while 28 percent failed just one.
Most of this success occurs with accountability alone, though treatment is also available when indicated. Hawken calls this approach “behavioral triage,” which allows those who can succeed to do so on their own, while those who need more support get it. This triage is the key to cost-effective scaling of the program.
Hawken has subsequently helped track and monitor replications of HOPE in at least 12 different locations around the country. Much hinges on how carefully the program is implemented, Hawken said. “In some of our places on the mainland we have these phenomenal leaders who make it all work. In other places, it’s like banging your head against a wall.”
She is enthused about Arizona, which launched the first juvenile justice version of HOPE. She also points to Washington, a state that, Hawken said, “managed to do something that six months ago I thought was impossible.”
What Washington did was dramatically expand its program’s reach while simultaneously using it with offenders who actually hurt people and broke things. These were, as Hawken put it, “really scary people.”
While HOPE is designed to scale, no prior experiments had attempted anything like Washington's statewide implementation. Also, prior work had focused mainly on nonviolent drug addicts, not violent criminals.
Hawken feared this double overleap — both in scale and type of client — would backfire and damage the nationwide effort. She was thus quite surprised at very encouraging early results, which, she said, offer “a first glimmer that this concept might actually be able to put a big dent in the prison population.”
Would such a program have helped Dave Dahl? “I do like that,” Dahl said of the HOPE program. “If a person knows the consequences and is held exactly to them, that makes a lot of difference.
“For me, accountability has been huge because I learned to realize that I was the one who was going to make a difference in my life. Each decision I made was on me.”
Dahl has seen it from both sides now. His fiancé has a 28-year old son with a heroine addiction. “There is nothing we can do about it,” Dahl said. “When I first met her, she’d say, ‘Let’s do this for him, let’s do that for him.’ And I’d say, ‘No, we can’t do anything for him. When he gets ready, we’ll do something for him.’”12 comments on this story
The answer is tough love, which is exactly what Judge Alm is offering, Dahl said. “The judge is saying, 'you guys have the power to change your lives. And I know that people make mistakes, but you are going to pay for it. And you are better off paying now than you are running away from it and paying more later.'”
What would he say to those still playing the game? “Have you suffered enough?” Dahl said. “Because you are going to suffer as long as you are doing this stuff. And as long as people enable you to do this stuff, you won’t suffer enough, and you won’t stop.”