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How CA Focus on Rehabilitation Played Out in One Success Story

As California's political leaders turned slowly away from a criminal justice system anchored in punishment to one that claims the goal of rehabilitation, comeback stories of people turning their lives around have become more common, in large part because of increases in funding for college programs for the formerly incarcerated, the Los Angeles Times reports. Based on reporting spanning three years, a Times reporter followed one man's trajectory from gang-involved to graduation from the prestigious UC Berkeley. Two helping hands in particular proved critical in the redemption of that man, Jessi Fernandez. The first was the renowned gang intervention program at Los Angeles' Homeboy Industries. The second was California's Project Rebound.

California community colleges enrolled at least 3,300 students in 2021-22 who once had been behind bars, more than double the number four years prior. In the Cal State system, Project Rebound supported 836 students with criminal records last year, a 173% increase over three years prior. Last year, the program saw its funding from the state triple, to $11.3 million, and its recidivism rate remain at less than 1%, according to the project’s chair, Brady Heiner. In 2022, a support group formed by two former prisoners at the notorious Pelican Bay State Prison, the Underground Scholars Initiative, won ongoing funding from the Legislature — $4 million annually, designed to spread post-incarceration programs to all nine UC campuses. Berkeley continues to lead the way, now supporting about 100 students who have served time in jail or prison. “We’re working hard to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline and to create a prison-to-university pipeline,” said Azadeh Zohrabi, executive director of Berkeley Underground Scholars, an adjunct of the student group and now a formal office within Berkeley’s Division of Equity and Inclusion. “We have students in PhD programs, students who are writing books, students who are bringing lived experiences that transform the learning environment,” Zohrabi said. “They are really shaping the spaces they are in as much as those spaces are shaping them.”


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