The U.S. leads the world in prison population, both as a total number and per-capita, yet lags well behind many other nations in terms of re-integrating ex-cons back into civilian life — a lack “The Return” illustrates with particular acuteness. Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s feature follows men released after recent reform of the 1994 California “Three Strikes” law that had seen them and thousands of others given virtual life sentences for frequently petty crimes, suddenly starting over after years of anticipating no such chance. Their struggles are depicted in a film that’s naturally compelling despite some narrative gap, as evidenced by its audience award win at the Tribeca film festival.
Though not the first state to enact similar legislation (trailblazer Texas at one point upheld the contested life sentence of a man whose three felonies comprised a grand total of $230 in fraudulent activity), California’s 1994 Proposition 184 was the most sweeping, its extreme rhetoric rubber-stamped by voters in the wake of 12-year-old Polly Klaas’ high-profile abduction, rape and murder by a released serial violent offender. (Two dozen other states eventually passed similar “habitual offender” laws.) But as the “third strike” didn’t have to be a violent felony, prison populations swelled with a new influx of “lifers” who weren’t necessarily menaces to society — and whose removal from the general populace did not significantly reduce crime statistics as hoped. Budget reductions in some cases axed these prisoners’ access to vocational training, addiction counseling and other in-prison programs, the idea being that such help was wasted on “lifers” with little chance of parole.
So the protagonists in “The Return” are even less equipped to re-enter society than they might have been when California’s Prop. 36 became the first-ever time U.S. voters enabled sentence shortening for the already-incarcerated. That bill was largely a product of the Stanford Three Strikes Project, whose director Michael Romano as well as attorney Susan Champion are major onscreen presences here.
Appalled that crimes such as stealing a few clothes from Sears or possessing $5 in crack cocaine could lead to life sentences, they successfully agitated for reform of policy that many now agreed had been disastrous. When the new law passed in 2012, a tidal wave of release petitions hit the courts. Not only did each case need to be argued for, but Romano and company realized prisoners (many of whom had disengaged from their any families and communities left behind, believing they’d never live among them again) would require re-entry support systems that were very poorly provided for in the status quo.
The principal figure followed over his first year of freedom is Kenneth Anderson, a bearish middle-aged man who moves back in with his middle-class L.A. African-American family after well over a decade’s absence. He’d gotten 25-to-life over a purse snatching, the fateful last blunder in a struggle with drug abuse brought on by stress over his failed janitorial business. Welcomed back by his ex-wife, variably wary now-adult offspring and several grandchildren he’s never met, he’s fortunate in many respects — but still encounters considerable hurdles, on the job front and elsewhere. By contrast, Bilal Kevin Chatman has no spouse or children to return to. After 11 years’ “inside” (his “third strike” was selling $200 in drugs to an undercover agent), he heads straight from prison to Home of the Loving Father Re-Entry Facility, a halfway house in San Jose.
Chatman is given much less screen time than Anderson, and even the latter’s evolving story has some awkward blank spots — when he’s abruptly fired from the job he finally lands, precipitating a crisis, we have no idea why. The filmmakers (whose prior doc “Better This World” dealt with a very different type of questionable criminal sentencing) also follow the release petitioning for Lester Wallace, a diagnosed schizophrenic who became California’s very first “Three Strikes” conviction after an attempted car-stereo theft. But we never actually hear from him, only glimpse him in court as his case is argued. And there’s just a single scene portraying the new life (working on a farm) for “Shane,” whose being raised in a frequently homeless, drug-addled family made him the perfect candidate for what Romano says was too often “the solution for a generation” to problems of poverty, addiction and mental illness: Lock ’em up and throw away the key.
“The Return” would be more satisfying if it had given these figures equal screen time, investigating more fully a greater range of ex-inmate experiences. It also mentions without explaining a significant event: the fact that many state prosecutors began “unexpectedly” challenging these release petitions. Were they trying to protect a now-lucrative prison-industrial complex from declining inmate numbers?
Nevertheless, what’s here is potent stuff, as it vividly captures the psychological as well as logistical difficulties of re-adjusting to civilian life. If nothing else, “The Return” underlines that at least as much care should be put into the process of de-institutionalizing offenders as goes into institutionalizing them in the first place. (A closing text notes that, despite the limited availability of such infrastructure, so far released “Three Strikes” ex-cons in California have a recidivism rate well below the national average.)
The briskly paced doc is well-shot by d.p. Mario Furloni, with other tech/design contributions also solid.