We are a group of former longtime felons and drug addicts. Collectively we have been arrested over 400 times. Between us, we’ve been incarcerated for well over 150 years. And that was the best thing you could have done for us.

We plead with our legislators, judicial and police leadership to stop enabling criminals/addicts like us. You’re enabling us every time you look the other way when we break into homes, cars and businesses in order to feed our addictions. You’re enabling us when you hold us for a few days for crimes that used to bring sentences of a few years. You’re almost handing us a needle when you let us skate out on long sentences if we simply agree to attend another 60-day program that hasn’t worked for us before.

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Furthermore, it terrifies us every time we hear a political candidate say, “We need to stop sending addicts to jail. We need to send them to rehab!” You aren’t helping us when you don’t hold us accountable for hurting other people. As evidence of this, as a result of your reforms of the past three years, recidivism is up almost 30%. And addiction prevalence has not declined a bit.

The softer you are on us, the more of us will die. We buried a beloved friend this week who had been committing crimes for over a year with no consequences. He was arrested again a week ago then released two days later. By the end of the week he died in a high-speed crash while high. Thank God, at least, that he took no innocents with him.

Another man who lives with us now at The Other Side Academy was on a crime spree for 18 months. During that time, he was arrested eight times, and released on his own recognizance without spending any real time in jail. What is it with people like you who trust us eight times in a row to return responsibly to court when we say we will? When you do things like this, we don’t see you as compassionate. We see you as marks.

If you want to help us, hold us accountable

We understand that there is important work to do in criminal justice reform to remove racist biases in sentencing, and sentences that are outrageously out of proportion to the crime. Please continue with that work. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If people commit crimes that hurt others, they must be held accountable. Don’t send us to jail because we’re addicts; send us to jail because we’re criminals. In San Francisco last year there were over 20,000 car break-ins. Most of those were committed by addicts trying to get money to stay high. And not a single break-in was prosecuted. This isn’t leniency. This is enabling. Addicts, like we used to be, love it when others pity us and feel guilty about holding us accountable.

Here’s what works for people like us.

1. Hold us accountable.

2. Give us options.

3. Hold us accountable if we split.

Hold us accountable. First and foremost, if you want to help us change, punish us in proportion to what we’ve done. Don’t give us a pass because we like to pop pills or stick needles in our arms. Separate our addictions from our crimes and treat them as separate problems. Addicts don’t change until their lives are miserable enough that the pain of changing is less than the pain of not changing. Incarcerating us in proportion to what we’ve done is part of the motivational arithmetic that forces us to reconsider change.

We work together today at a place that offers longtime criminal/addicts a chance to stay 2½ years (for free) as they reinvent their lives. We have over a hundred students who have been arrested an average of 25 times. That statistic might tempt you to conclude that arrest doesn’t work. In fact, it says the opposite. What doesn’t work is arrests with no consequences. Our students have been arrested so many times because they have been released with minimal stays without truly being held accountable for the magnitude of their crimes. Those who do best at The Other Side Academy are those who are facing the most serious legal consequences. Accountability is compassion.

Those who do best at The Other Side Academy are those who are facing the most serious legal consequences.

Give us options. We are all in favor of giving people who are ready to change a chance to do something besides incarceration. But please stop doing it in a way that feels like a get out of jail free card. Most people would be shocked to discover that:

  1. A majority of those assigned to rehab programs split before finishing the program.
  2. When they split, they rarely have to serve the sentence went to a program to avoid.

Do you understand what this means? Addicts do. When we are arrested for the umpteenth time and are finally facing some real time, we all know the drill: Write a few dozen heart-wrenching letters to every treatment provider in the book hoping you’ll find a few with empty beds. Writing these letters becomes an art form. Tell them how broken you feel. Tell them about your abusive upbringing. Tell them about all the children you gave birth to or fathered who are out there waiting for you to change your life. Tell them how badly you feel about all the people you hurt.

Then when the acceptance letters roll in, you put the shortest length programs on the top of the pile and the longer ones on the bottom. If the judge will let you get away with a 30-day program, why bother with anything longer? If you’re forced to do 60 or 90 days, that’s still shorter than the 3-5 years you were facing. Easy math. We will always pick the shortest and easiest thing you offer us, because that’s what addicts do. Why would you let us do that?

Then, after a few minutes in the program, we walk out the door knowing there is almost no chance we will be required to do our time. Voila, we’re off and running again!

That’s how it works.

Are we in favor of alternatives to incarceration? Of course we are! But they have to be done right. Here’s how.

Hold us accountable if we split. Some students come to The Other Side Academy having committed plenty of crimes but get no clear mandate from the court that they must complete our program. The court, in essence, says, “Give it a shot and we’ll see what happens.” That kind of loose commitment is a license to kill for the criminal/addict.

Others come with a clear contract with the court. Their judge sentences them for the crimes they commit. They know exactly how much time they are facing. And the judge adds, “If you don’t complete your program, you will serve this time. No questions asked. Then the judge follows through.

Does this help? Please read the next sentence slowly and carefully. Our five years of data show that when students arrive with clear accountability, they are more than twice as likely to stay the full 2½ years. And when they do, 88% of them stay out of jail.

None of us would have changed if you hadn’t continued to escalate our consequences. None of us would be where we are today if you hadn’t let us know you wouldn’t put up with our mayhem. And none of us would be here if the courts had not sent us to a program that was long enough to be effective, with crystal clear consequences if we screwed it up.

We plead with political and criminal justice leaders to give people like us a chance to truly change. Getting accountability right is the right way to help us change.

Written by leaders of The Other Side Academy: Dave Durocher, Lola Strong, Steve Strong, Chris Nelson, Sharon Nelson, Justin Allen, Tori Dixon, Robert Davalos, Sierra Belka, Matthew Sims, John Libutti, Robyn Paxton, Tiffany Blair, Jesse Graham, Diego Cortez, Ashley Serkin, Jordan Hosman, Lindsey Nelson, Nicholas Smith, Greg Youngblood, Laef Burton, Jordon Holdaway, Ashlee Uden, Roscoe Green.