LOS ANGELES — Jose Gonzalez remembers feeling disoriented as he stepped out of Chuckawalla Valley State Prison and into the vastness of the Colorado Desert. A corrections van was waiting to shuttle him to freedom. The driver rolled down the passenger window and told Gonzalez to get in. The door handle felt foreign in his fingers, and he struggled to open it.
“I’d never been able to open my own door in 20 years,” he said.
Gonzalez had just served a long stint on a life sentence for his role in a grisly 1996 murder. Until his release last April, Gonzalez had no doubt he would die in prison: “If you had a life sentence . . . you were going to do life. No one was getting out.”
But Gonzalez, 36, returned to society and is now answering phones in downtown Los Angeles as a paid intern for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Human Rights Watch, two nonprofit groups that sponsored the law that cleared the way for his release.
Gonzalez is among thousands of felons benefiting from a grand experiment, an act of mass forgiveness unprecedented in U.S. history. In California, once a national innovator in draconian policies to get tough on crime, voters and lawmakers are now innovating in the opposite direction, adopting laws that have released tens of thousands of inmates and are preventing even more from going to prison in the first place.