The Return

In November 2012, voters amended California's "three strikes law" — one of the harshest criminal laws ever written — the first time in U.S. history that citizens voted to shorten sentences of the currently incarcerated. Within days, the release of thousands of lifers — men and women once expecting to die in prison — was underway. At a moment of national reckoning on mass incarceration, what can California's experiment teach the nation?

In November 2012, voters amended California's "three strikes law" — one of the harshest criminal laws ever written — one of the harshest criminal sentencing laws ever written. The landmark passage of Proposition 36 constituted the first time in national history that citizens voted to shorten sentences of the currently incarcerated. Within days, the release of thousands of lifers — men and women once expecting to die in prison — was underway.

THE RETURN weaves the stories of those on the front lines of this unprecedented shift: prisoners suddenly freed, families turned upside down, attorneys and judges wrestling with an untested law and reentry providers negotiating unfathomable transitions. THE RETURN begins in the months leading up to the law's passage and follows its roll out in the lives of individuals and institutions throughout the state: the Los Angeles judge presiding over more than one thousand re-sentencing hearings; a nineteen year old girl anticipating the release of the father she hasn’t seen in a decade; a trio lawyers at Stanford's Three Strikes Clinic where the overall strategy around prisoners’ release is being choreographed; a man given a life sentence for stealing a purse preparing to reunite with his wife and four children fourteen years later.

A constellation of intimate narratives with occasional unexpected points of connection between them, THE RETURN renders, in immersive verité with the cinematic eye of a narrative feature, a nuanced look at a historic reform in a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

At a moment of national reckoning on mass incarceration, what can California's experiment teach the nation?

Photo by Todd Hido

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