Sacramento Bee
By Orson Aguilar

The $250 million that California is about to save by slashing vital rehabilitation programs for prisoners will cost us many times that much money. The money we think we’re saving will cost us many times over in more crime, more drug abuse and ruined lives. Rehabilitation and alternative programs can save lives. I know. One of them saved mine.

I grew up in Boyle Heights, a rough section of East Los Angeles, in the 1980s. Poverty, gangs, drugs and violence plagued our community. But I was lucky enough to stay out of most of it – until one night, at age 19, I did something stupid.

A friend and I were attacked by a group of teens. In the struggle, I fired a shot from a handgun, scattering the crowd but striking one of the assailants in the forearm. Luckily, he was not seriously hurt. My friend and I also escaped with only minor injuries.

But I was charged with a felony. My friends urged me to fight the charges on grounds of self-defense. Instead, I took responsibility for my action. I pleaded guilty to felony assault with a deadly weapon.

I was fortunate. Because I had no criminal convictions and with numerous letters of support from former teachers and mentors, the judge gave me a lenient sentence: six months in county jail followed by five years’ probation. I was accepted into an alternative work-furlough program that allowed me to get a job at an attorney’s office during the day. I spent my nights and weekends in a South Los Angeles halfway house.

Two months after completing my sentence, I was given parole. This allowed me to leave Los Angeles and resume my education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I graduated with a degree in psychology.

I went on to receive a master’s degree in public affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

Since that incident in 1993, I’ve worked and volunteered at nearly a dozen nonprofit organizations. I have mentored at-risk youths, built affordable housing and organized low-income families.

For the most part, I have dedicated my life to remedying the economic situations that lead to youth violence.

Chances are none of this would have happened if that judge and parole board hadn’t believed in me. They allowed me to participate in the work-furlough program and let me out on parole to continue my studies.

We know that rehabilitation programs work. A study in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency found that graduates of such programs are less likely to return to a life of crime. The 2000 study of 33 educational, vocational and work programs for prisoners found that participants were more than 20 percent less likely to reoffend than non-participants. Studies of prison drug-treatment programs have documented similar success rates.

Every prisoner who becomes a productive citizen through rehabilitation programs translates to saved tax dollars and innocent lives saved from crime victimization.

But even before the new cuts, we still don’t have nearly enough of these programs.

For example, a 2009 grand jury report on California State Prison, Solano, found “a long list of inmates waiting” to get into Prison Industry Authority programs that provide work experience. These prisoners want help preparing for legitimate jobs, but aren’t receiving it. As a result, California prisoners have the highest recidivism rate in the nation: Seventy percent reoffend after leaving prison, more than twice the rate of New York.

And it will only get worse as these new cuts go forward. The few dollars we save today will be swamped by what these “savings” will force us to spend tomorrow on police, courts, prisons – and funerals for victims of violent crimes that might have been prevented if we hadn’t been so short-sighted.

A far-sighted rehabilitation program saved my life from ruin. Let’s save lives, not delude ourselves over false cost savings.