American Morning

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February 19th, 2010
07:00 AM ET

'Magic happened' after she gave ex-cons a chance at new lives

By Kathleen Toner, CNN

Los Angeles, California (CNN) - At the bus terminal in downtown Los Angeles, they're easy to spot. Dressed in blue jeans, they carry boxes, bags or large envelopes with their name and a number on it. They are ex-offenders, just released from California's prison system. When they step off the bus with $200 in "gate money" in their pockets, many have hopes of making a fresh start.

But in this seedy area just blocks from Skid Row, the new arrivals are easy targets for pimps and drug dealers. For some, the temptation is too much. While not everyone succumbs to the streets so quickly, nearly 60 percent return to prison within three years, according to California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

It's a cycle that Susan Burton is striving to break through her reentry program. Having served six prison terms for drug offenses in the 1980s and '90s, Burton knows from experience how hard it can be.

"Every time I was released, I swore I wasn't going back," said Burton, 57. "But I know now that without the resources and support, it's next to impossible. ... If you don't have a new door to walk through, the only thing is the old door."

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soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Ann

    Mike – congratulations on putting your life back together!

    It's interesting reading these comments after reading those on the other article about releasing sex offenders. Generally, they're all the "kill 'em all," "lock 'em up and never let 'em out" and "they're not really human" variety of comments. Yeah, everyone's a tough guy.

    I work in a prison. There are certainly people in here who, I believe, should never get out. Either because they seem to have a very high probability of reoffending, or because their crime was so awful, or both. Still, most of them will eventually be released, because A) that's what the judge decided, and B) society cannot afford to keep every violent criminal locked up forever. It simply costs too much money.

    Quality release preparation programs cost a lot of money, too. And unfortunately, our society doesn't want to pay the bill. "Why should we help criminals? They got what they deserved." Politicians won't win a lot of votes by supporting programs that give "handouts" to released felons.

    Sure, there are programs, but often, they're not great. One inmate told me recently that the "job placement program" he went through the last time he was out consisted of one bored worker sitting in an office, ordering him to go out and look for a job. This inmate had never had a job before, and didn't know how to look for one. He also was illiterate, and didn't have the skills to fill out an application. At the time, he was also too proud to admit he couldn't read, so he just appeared to be lazy. It didn't take long for him to come back to prison. This time, he's worked hard on his reading (AND his attitude!), but he'll still need a lot of help.

    So, think about what you'd like to have happen if he releases to YOUR neighborhood. It'll cost some money to increase his chances of making it. He'll need some coaching on how to fill out an application, and how to present himself well in an interview. He'll probably need the government to offer some kind of incentive to a company to hire him - there aren't a whole lot of want ads for uneducated ex-cons. Maybe those incentives will mean that he'll get a job that some local high-school kid won't get instead. That may seem unfair to the kid, but the kid will probably have more options. Thing is, if we don't put some resources into helping this guy, he's going to do the same exact thing as he did last time – get discouraged, get frustrated, and then go rob someone. It's in no one's best interest for that to happen.

    March 12, 2010 at 1:57 pm |
  2. Prathap Rajamani

    Giving an opputunity to get corrected is what the department of corrections does. After they are out, they need an extent of social support so that they could lead atleast a "less than normal" life and contribute to the society by some means.

    – Prathap Rajamani

    March 11, 2010 at 11:21 pm |
  3. Mike

    When you are 1 percent of the people that find a way to escape the revolving door it seems that the system, local and state law enforcement agencies dont know how to except this and continue to judge you for who and/or what you did in your past. the sad thing is when you have moved on and some time has passed they still continue to put you in the same category as your past.
    The sad and simple truth is, it is easier to believe you will never change than understand with the proper support and personal drive not only can you change but you can become something others admire and respect.
    I've served almost 7 years in my 20's, since my release in 1997 i have become a productive member of society, a career orientated person, developed strong friendships both in the business world but most importantly personal life. but know matter how far I've come, by most I am still a convicted criminal who should be locked up for ever and never allowed to live my life free, simple and without judgement.
    Its sad that as the politicians desire to remain in office they add, modify, or simply react to emotions without any ability to understand that though many dont change the ones that do, deserve to not be incorporated into new laws that run retro as if you had just committed the crime.
    I am not bitter about being in prison as i was the one that was lucky, i was awakened while there, worked my butt off to fine how to be better and different and when released had people that believed in me and helped me to continue my growth. I was a stupid young adult and I made very bad decisions, however as a more mature adult I and those like me should be allowed to continue our lives without the constant reminder of the past. I am a firm believer that those who forget are likely to repeat, however I can assure everyone out there that anyone who has ever been incarcerated does not EVER forget where they were and where they are continuing to try to go.

    March 4, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
  4. Cheryl

    I do not know how these people have a shot at a new life because it is impossible to get a job even with a misdemeanor because of these background checks. The law states a employer cannot refuse employment because of a rap sheet, but they do and they can get away with it. What happened to this country? These background checks even tell your credit report. What does this have to do with a job? Things seemed so much easier before all this crap. We have absolutely no privacy in America and our rights are being stripped away bit by bit.

    March 2, 2010 at 12:31 am |
  5. daffy22

    Well in this country justice is like the political system if you have the money you can buy all the justice you want,but if you have no money you are going to lose and if you are innocent of the charges your screwed.If you are found guilty you are going to do the time.You are given a mark that is the number your given when you enter the system it stays with you tell you die.Then while your in prison for any length of time you become institutionalized you are told what to do all the time you are in there ,when to eat,when to sit ,when you can go to the bathroom every part of you life is dictated to you by the system and also by the system of convicts inside the system and they don't seperate you from the worsed of the worsed for your crimes you are put in with the murderers,sex perverts, you name it ,except for the ones on death row or the ones who have commited crimes of murder within the system.then when you do get out socicity on the outside has changed a lot from the way you remember it you have to learn how to ajust on the outside and if you are weak minded when you went in and you get out you will be back inside within a year or two.

    February 28, 2010 at 9:22 pm |
  6. 2010ZX

    In this county anyone that has a runin with this legalsystem has no changes for a normal live afterwords.People here say onething an mean an other.You are sent to jial to do your time to pay these people for what you mite of done and when you get out you still pay with any other thing they say you have to do,but when you do that,the law and the government an people here dose everything they can to grand you into the ground.People here have the state government change laws an then have the new laws applies to people that was sentenced under the old law but not with every law just the ones the people rase hell about ,so they do it just to keep there jobs what happen to them suppost to that care of eveyone here an to treat everyone farely.I can see changing a law at times an then haven it appie to anyone that brakes the new law but not going back to everyone that broke that law befor it was changed.What happen to this county you say that it is the beat one in the world but tell me anyother one that dose this ??????What happen to [ true honesty an justice for all ] not just for some????I know as of late some person here have done things that are so bad an unthinkabl to me an I hope to everyone else but dose that give the right to put those thinges that they did on to someone an after changing the laws have them appie to soneone that didn"t do anything as bad as the ones that broke the new laws did.An yes it is wrong to brake any laws but truly do we want to change every law an have it go back to anyone that broke it in the frist place??????????

    February 23, 2010 at 8:42 pm |