LA County Should Loosen Strict Reentry Program Criteria

By Sophia Lowe, Eleanor Pearson and Samuel Mistrano | May 19, 2023, 12:50 PM EDT ·

Sophia Lowe
Sophia Lowe
Eleanor Pearson
Eleanor Pearson
Samuel Mistrano
Samuel Mistrano
On Feb. 28, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to draft a Fair Chance Ordinance that would prevent most businesses in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County from excluding job applicants with histories of criminal records during the hiring process, and that would fine employers that violate it.[1]

These kinds of legal protections are crucial for reducing recidivism and helping the formerly incarcerated population successfully reenter society upon release.

While this ordinance is about dignity, and supports the idea that every individual deserves a fair chance, much more needs to be done.

According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the LA County jail system has an average daily population of nearly 15,000 people.[2] 

Statewide, the numbers are exponentially larger: 30,000 people are released from prison each year.[3]

Sentences served, do we welcome formerly incarcerated people back as productive members of society?

Unfortunately, no. Individuals who are formerly incarcerated face a multitude of barriers to successfully and fairly reentering society. Faced with obstacles to the ballot box, and ineligible for public benefits, public housing and student loans, these individuals face additional challenges accessing education and endure scant job opportunities.

A predictable outcome is that 65% of those released from California prisons return within three years.[4]

The multitude of barriers faced by formerly incarcerated individuals leads to a cumbersome uphill battle that often foreseeably results in recidivism.

Some jurisdictions have programs in place to provide support for individuals reentering society. LA County has a few of these programs, but the eligibility requirements are so narrow that most people do not qualify. Only those that have a diagnosed serious mental illness, substance use disorder, and who are experiencing homelessness are eligible for enrollment.[5] 

The rigid criteria for enrollment in the current LA County reentry programs leaves the majority of formerly incarcerated individuals to fall through the cracks.

LA County should provide proper funding for its reentry programs and offer crucial rehabilitative services to every individual reentering society after a period of incarceration. LA County reentry programs fail to consider that all justice-involved individuals are members of a vulnerable population.

Every individual that enters the criminal justice system should have the opportunity to successfully reenter society when released. Research indicates that when formerly incarcerated individuals obtain employment, it reduces their risk for recidivism and facilitates community reengagement.

By deeming them ineligible for support in the process of rehabilitation to community life — simply because they don't meet specific levels of incapacitation — the LA County system sets them up for failure.

This cycle is unjust and leaves thousands of people motivated to rejoin society without the ability to meaningfully do so.

Reentry programs currently in place in LA County are systemically flawed in design. The rigid criteria for program enrollment, as well as a lack of coordinated efforts among stakeholders, are some of the most prominent obstacles built into their frameworks.

Instead of only reacting to crime, it is essential that we focus on prevention and revise current LA County reentry programs to shut the revolving door of the criminal justice system. We must centralize our efforts around repairing lives and rebuilding communities.

We've seen the success of reentry programs in San Diego: The San Diego Workforce Partnership collaborates with Second Chance and other partners on programs like Reentry Works, which provides "pre-release employment and training services, links to jobs and post-release employment services, earn and learn opportunities, supportive services ... and community-based connections."[6]

Second Chance is a three-decades-old agency dedicated to providing holistic services to justice-involved individuals that has developed some of the most effective solutions to promoting equal access to opportunity following incarceration, thus reducing recidivism rates.[7]

Through the provision of prerelease employment and training services, such as holding job fairs in jails and providing career support and counseling, these programs provide people with support in navigating possible career paths and identifying long-term job placements.

Being able to exit the system with a job in place provides much-needed stability.

One of the San Diego Workforce Partnership's programs, in partnership with Second Chance, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, and others, run career centers in several facilities. The average job placement rate for program participants is 80%. The recidivism rate for program participants is also 18%, compared with much higher rates in other counties, including LA County.[8]

More broadly, 90% of Second Chance's job-readiness graduates secure full-time employment within 30 days.[9]

And who is eligible for this reentry program in San Diego County?

Anyone over the age of 18 who has any experience with the criminal justice system.

In comparison, more than 30% of the LA County jail mental health population is deemed inappropriate for the current reentry programs in place.[10]

Who decides this? Lawyers, prosecutors, judges and other legal stakeholders must all agree to divert an individual.

To make matters worse, not every eligible candidate will be diverted in the end. We highlight here the negative impact of LA County's tunnel vision approach to the criminal justice system, as the focus remains on "the worst of the worst."

LA County, as well as other jurisdictions around the country, should emulate the model of San Diego's reentry program.

A program better suited to address the systemic barriers currently in place should loosen the strict eligibility criteria so that all individuals have a fair shot at reentering society.

Further, the focus of this reentry program should be on the development of skills and activities available to people while they are incarcerated in order to facilitate successful reentry upon release and minimize the likelihood of reoffending.

Through the inclusion of professional skill building, education, training, counseling for career support and behavioral management programs while incarcerated, coupled with all-inclusive program eligibility criteria, we posit that this program would support a reduction in recidivism rates.

By centralizing the program's efforts around prerelease employment and training services — modeling it after San Diego's reentry programs — people will be able to exit the justice system with a job, providing stability and contributing to decreased likelihood of reincarceration.

Further, all-inclusive program criteria for enrollment would affect the justice-involved population as a whole, and not just those who meet specific levels of incapacitation.

LA County must expand its tunnel vision approach for the criminal justice system's revolving door to finally close.

Reentry programs in LA County and beyond must recognize that every individual returning to society following incarceration — not just those who lack housing and have a diagnosed mental illness or substance use disorder — faces a nearly insurmountable set of obstacles. Such programs must be open to all formerly incarcerated individuals. Much more needs to be done.

Sophia Lowe is a Master of Social Work student at the University of Southern California's Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Eleanor Pearson is an MSW student at USC's Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. 

Samuel Mistrano is an associate teaching professor at USC's Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. 

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.


[2] Custody Services Division, Public Data Sharing 2022 Quarter Three Report, Division Totals, September 2022, p. 4.









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