LOS ANGELES — Jose Gonzalez remembers feeling disoriented as he stepped out of Chuckawalla Valley State Prison and into the vastness of the Colorado Desert. A corrections van was waiting to shuttle him to freedom. The driver rolled down the passenger window and told Gonzalez to get in. The door handle felt foreign in his fingers, and he struggled to open it.
“I’d never been able to open my own door in 20 years,” he said.
Gonzalez had just served a long stint on a life sentence for his role in a grisly 1996 murder. Until his release last April, Gonzalez had no doubt he would die in prison: “If you had a life sentence . . . you were going to do life. No one was getting out.”
But Gonzalez, 36, returned to society and is now answering phones in downtown Los Angeles as a paid intern for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Human Rights Watch, two nonprofit groups that sponsored the law that cleared the way for his release.
Gonzalez is among thousands of felons benefiting from a grand experiment, an act of mass forgiveness unprecedented in U.S. history. In California, once a national innovator in draconian policies to get tough on crime, voters and lawmakers are now innovating in the opposite direction, adopting laws that have released tens of thousands of inmates and are preventing even more from going to prison in the first place.
The most famous is a landmark ballot measure called Proposition 47, which in 2014 made California the first state in the nation to make possession of any drug — including cocaine and heroin — a misdemeanor. More astonishing is the state’s decision to show leniency toward violent offenders, including murderers like Gonzalez.
For example, the state has ordered parole hearings for longtime inmates convicted of committing violent crimes before they turned 23, requiring authorities to consider anew whether immaturity at the time of the inmates’ offense argues for their release.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has approved parole for roughly 2,300 lifers convicted of murder and about 450 lifers sentenced for lesser offenses — a revolution in a state that released only two lifers during former governor Gray Davis’s entire four-year term.
And more reforms could be in store. Last month, Brown unveiled a ballot measure that, if approved by voters in November, would grant early release to nonviolent felons who complete rehab programs and demonstrate good behavior.
Progressives across the nation have applauded California’s U-turn.
“There is a gathering sense that the public is considerably less punitive than people had thought,” said Joe Margulies, a professor of law and government at Cornell University.
But with crime in some of California’s largest cities ticking up after years of sustained decline, many law enforcement leaders and victims’ advocates say the state has gone too far.
“Our hope was folks getting out of prisons are going to come out and be model citizens,” said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance. “Unfortunately, we’re not seeing that.”
Over the past decade, California’s prison population has fallen by more than 50,000 inmates — by far the biggest drop of any state in the nation, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Today, the state locks up nearly 113,000 people in 34 facilities that were designed for roughly 83,000 people.
The effort was accelerated by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Brown v. Plata in 2011 that the state’s overcrowded prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The court ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity within two years — effectively requiring the release of tens of thousands of inmates.
In an acerbic dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called it “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.”
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a criminal-justice advocacy group, said it is extremely rare for state officials to pass laws that send prisoners home early. The only previous example, he said, was a decision in Michigan in the late 1990s to revoke a law that required anyone convicted of selling more than 650 grams of cocaine or heroin — even first-time offenders — to be sentenced to life without parole.
Releasing prisoners convicted of violent crimes is rarer still, Mauer said. While some states have created new parole procedures for youthful offenders, most are willing to release only first-time offenders.
But in California, as many as 90 percent of inmates in 2013 had either a violent or serious felony conviction, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. That left the state with little choice for bringing prisoner counts down.
“We’ve created this myth that we’re filling prisons with drug offenders — like some guy, a college sophomore, who was arrested with a single joint and was sentenced to 10 years in prison,” Margulies said. “I’m telling you, that guy doesn’t exist.”
Marc Klaas calls the trend “madness.” Klaas, 64, is the founder of the Klaas Kids Foundation, one of the nation’s leading child-search organizations. He created the foundation to give meaning to the death of his 12-year-old daughter, Polly, who was snatched from her Petaluma home in October 1993 by a repeat offender who raped and killed her.
The horrific crime came amid a national spike in murders fueled in part by the crack cocaine epidemic. Within months, California voters responded by adopting the signal reform of the era: The “three strikes law,” which sent criminals away for life upon conviction of a third felony, no matter how minor.
Other states followed, and the nation’s prison population soared. Today, softening three-strikes laws has become a central goal of prison reformers.
Criminal-justice policy is “like a pendulum, swinging towards a spirit of rehabilitation,” Klaas said. “What it doesn’t take into account is that evil really exists.”
Klaas mentioned that the wife of a friend was murdered by one of the youthful inmates who is now eligible for a special parole hearing under California law — “a 16-year-old boy who wanted to know what it would feel like to murder somebody.”
The killer told Klaas’s friend that “if he ever got out of prison, he would come back and finish the job with the rest of his family.”
“If this guy gets out,” Klaas said his friend told him, “I’m going to have to kill him, to protect my kids.”
So far, 250 inmates have been released under the Youth Offender Parole law, most of them violent offenders. As many as 16,000 more remain eligible. Meanwhile, a study by Stanford Law School found that Proposition 47 had unlocked the cell doors of nearly 4,500 prisoners since taking effect in late 2014.
Sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors speculate that Prop 47 has contributed to a recent rise in crime and homelessness in major California cities, arguing that the law eliminated a useful billy club: the threat of a felony conviction to steer addicts into treatment.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Kirk Albanese, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. “You’ve got an addiction, we are not holding you accountable, and you’re back into the cycle of using. How do you support that habit? Stealing. Our burglaries are up, car theft is up, break-ins are up — they are all up.”
Hilary Chittick, a veteran judge for the Superior Court of Fresno County, said Prop 47 has “decimated” her ability to force addicts into treatment.
“The public had a house with a leaky roof and bad pipes,” she said. “So they blew up the house.”
Prop 47 supporters acknowledge the problem and say efforts are underway to address it. More drug courts, for instance, are opening their doors to misdemeanants as well as felons, said Prop 47 co-author Lenore Anderson, executive director of the advocacy group Californians for Safety and Justice.
“If you think that you need a stick in order to mandate treatment, that option is available with a misdemeanor,” Anderson said.
But Prop 47 supporters reject the notion that the ballot measure contributed to localized spikes in crime. Early reports indicate that recidivism among inmates released under the full range of reforms has been low.
Among the recently paroled is Ryan Lo, who at age 17 gunned down the ex-boyfriend of a 16-year-old girl in a bizarre murder-for-hire plot carried out in an isolated Orange County canyon. Thanks to the Youth Offender Parole law, Lo was released in 2014 after serving 23 years of a 29-years-to-life sentence.
“When I went to prison, they took guys like me and put them in the meat grinder,” Lo said. “Seventeen-to-20-year-olds were being thrown into the hardest prisons we had, and they’d watch us get chewed up. They’d tell you flat out, ‘You’re not allowed to go to school. You are a lifer; you are dying here.’ ”
Something of an autodidact, Lo, now 41, did go to school and eventually earned six associate degrees while in prison. Since his release, he has found work as a night security guard through the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a nonprofit group founded by Scott Budnick, an executive producer of the comedy film “The Hangover.”
Stanley Bailey was sentenced to life under the three strikes law — for possessing a syringe while in prison. Released in the fall of 2014, Bailey, 53, now drives trucks, hauling cargo in and out of the Port of Los Angeles. The L.A. native recently completed a marathon and has reunited with his high school sweetheart, an outdoorsy type who works in advertising. They are engaged.
“My faith, my job and her are the things I hold dear,” he said.
Ingrid Archie, a 34-year-old single mother from a gritty neighborhood in South Los Angeles, owes her freedom to Prop 47. Archie, who grew up a foster child and wound up dealing crack cocaine, was serving 18 months on a probation violation when she learned that Prop 47 would downgrade her latest crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Archie was discharged nearly a year early on Aug. 14, a day before her eldest daughter’s 14th birthday. Using the $200 in cash that released inmates receive at the gate, Archie took her daughter out to dinner. She now holds a job and is taking classes at a community college.
“Prop 47 helped me to know that there are people out there that want us to succeed even though we made a mistake,” Archie said.
In general, more than half of inmates released from California prisons — 54 percent — return to prison within three years. Among lifers paroled under Brown, the Los Angeles Times found, fewer than 2 percent have committed new crimes.
Among the 2,100 inmates released after the softening of the state’s three-strikes law, only about 6 percent have returned to prison. Michael Romano, director and co-founder of the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project, attributes the success of this cohort in part to extensive rehab, but also to a kind of forgiveness psychology.
“The state is saying, ‘We made a mistake,’ ” he said. “In every case, a judge has reviewed the case and decided, ‘You’re no longer a danger to public safety.’ It’s a vote of confidence and a public cleansing.”
For Gonzalez, that cleansing came in the form of a seven-hour parole-board hearing in December 2014. During the arbitration, so much jargon was flying around that Gonzalez had trouble reading the room — until his attorney gave him a thumbs-up under the table.
It was the second major pivot point in his life. The first was the night in 1996 when Gonzalez, then 17, helped fellow gang members kill a drunk person who was talking trash. Gonzalez was not the triggerman, but he admits he landed a few punches.
This year, with the help of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Gonzalez applied to both the University of California and California State University systems, where he hopes to further the studies in social and behavioral science he began in prison.
“I believe in the power of education,” he said. “It is that beacon in the dark path I was taking. It’s going to help me find my way out.”