JOSEPH VEJAR DIDN’T believe the phone call that ultimately led to his freedom. When he called his wife from a Solano prison in late 2020, she told him his case was being reviewed for early release.

Vejar was skeptical. After three years in prison, he wasn’t used to getting good news.

“I was waiting for the ‘but’ — what’s the catch here?” he said. “But there wasn’t one, there wasn’t a ‘but.’ There was an ‘and.’”

In 2017, Vejar was convicted on gang-related drug dealing charges in Santa Clara County. It was his third felony. Though California’s three-strikes law was changed to exclude many nonviolent offender crimes in 2012, the gang enhancement turned his conviction into a potential lifetime behind bars.

Instead, Vejar became one of dozens of people released from California prisons in recent years after a series of new laws allowed district attorneys to review and shorten the sentences of people who have been overcharged for nonviolent offenses or are nearing the end of long prison terms.

Vejar’s story appeared to have a happy ending. But he and other social justice advocates say the program — which just celebrated its one-year anniversary — has issues that need to be resolved. The inmates often lack adequate resources and support to succeed once they’re out.

“Most people start off in a very bad place when they start in prison, but they don’t have to remain that way, and they don’t.”

David Angel, Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney

It took Vejar a year to be released — from the time he received the call from his wife to when he walked out of prison. Once out, many former inmates struggle finding a job, housing and food assistance.

“A lot of people do not succeed in getting the resources they need,” Vejar said. “OK, we get them out, but what do we get them out to?”

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office was one of the first to join the California County Resentencing Pilot Program last year. The three-year initiative awarded $18 million to district attorneys, public defenders and nonprofits in nine counties to buoy efforts to review cases for eligibility and prepare qualified candidates for life after prison.

The pilot program officially launched in September 2021. The Santa Clara County DA’s office handled Vejar’s case because the crime occurred here.

Before the program started, the office had shortened 10 people’s sentences, Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney David Angel said. A year into the program, his office has successfully shortened another five people’s sentences. Six more could be released before the end of the year. The office also oversaw 101 resentenced cases from county jails in 2021.

Angel agreed that the lack of resources for people leaving prison is a problem that needs to be addressed. His office is hoping to launch new programs to provide that help by January.

The lucky few

This often lengthy process begins when the DA’s office receives a recommendation from an incarcerated person’s family, local advocacy groups or the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The DA’s office, public defender and nonprofit groups review these cases. These agencies identify people with nonviolent convictions who have a low risk of reoffending and a lengthy sentence, or have already served a large portion of their sentence. They consider the person’s original charges, time served and whether they’ve taken advantage of college courses and other self-improvement resources.

“Most people start off in a very bad place when they start in prison, but they don’t have to remain that way, and they don’t,” Angel told San José Spotlight.

The public defender’s office and advocacy groups like Silicon Valley De-Bug help the incarcerated person prepare statements showing they’ve grown while in prison and develop a reentry plan describing where they will live and work upon release. The DA’s office consults crime victims about whether the inmate should be released. Some victims have been supportive of the program so far, Angel said.

“It’s very time consuming and can be a kind of exhaustive process,” Angel said. “If you have a straightforward case it can be done in a matter of months. Sometimes it takes about a year.”

These agencies compile all information and present it to a judge. If the judge rules in their favor, the person can walk free in a matter of days.

The program has expanded to 15 counties across the state. But there are no guarantees for the incarcerated people who go through it. And their struggle for freedom doesn’t end when they walk out of prison.

Joseph and Benée Vejar stand together outside their San Jose home. (Photo by Brian Howey/San Jose Spotlight)

A treacherous road

It took nearly a year for Vejar to go through the case review process. He was an ideal candidate for the program: a nonviolent offender who had become a paralegal during his trial and enrolled in college classes, Narcotics Anonymous and Gangmembers Anonymous.

During that year, prison administrators began transferring informants and ex-gang members into the general population, which caused friction. If Vejar got into a prison brawl, he could have lost his chance of release.

“What I had to lose was not a fight. What I had to lose was my freedom,” he said.

Advocates helped him through the process and prepared him for life after prison.

“It is overwhelming the kind of work that they have put in,” said Hillary Blout, executive director of For the People, a nonprofit that helps district attorney offices establish resentencing processes.

After they had compiled his file and submitted it to the court, Vejar said it was a waiting game.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and the possibility of freedom on the horizon, time slowed and Vejar’s anxiety grew. But in October 2021 his wife delivered the news that a judge had approved Vejar’s release.

After four years in prison, he was going home.

His wife Benée remembers waiting with their two children for hours outside the prison gates on the cold autumn morning they picked him up. Vejar emerged from a prison transport van, and they were reunited.

“I didn’t even know how to process my feelings,” she said. “Just seeing him get in our car and us leaving, nothing mattered. Everything that we’d been through, it didn’t matter. He was with us.”

Joseph Vejar (center right) reunites with his family in late 2021. (Photo courtesy of Benée Vejar and For the People)

Life after prison

Vejar is on parole. An ankle monitor encircles his left ankle, ensuring he stays within a 50-mile radius of his San Jose home. He attends community organizing classes at De Anza College and works as an organizer for De-Bug, where he hopes to someday build housing for people transitioning out of prison life.

Family support has eased Vejar’s transition to life outside prison. But for many, this is the hardest part of the resentencing program.

“When you’re incarcerated, most of your decisions are made for you. Once you’re out in the free world, it can be overwhelming,” said Andy Gutierrez, supervisor of the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s post-convictions unit. “Our clients are still encountering a lot of obstacles and barriers.”

Many find themselves “ping-ponging” between various agencies in their search for housing, job assistance and other social safety nets, Gutierrez said.

As the pilot program enters its second year, the public defender’s office has begun to pivot from an agency that focused mostly on legal services to one that also provides social support for people back in society.

While the resentencing program is a worthy venture, Vejar said, it still has kinks that need to be addressed, including the need to streamline the maze of post-release resources.

“It’s a good program because you’re giving somebody freedom, a second chance at life,” Vejar said. “But the process could be better.”

Contact Brian Howey at brian@sanjosespotlight.com or @SteelandBallast on Twitter.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.

Brian Howey, San Jose Spotlight

CalMatters