The Return

PBS Premiere: May 23, 2016Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Statement

We've spent much of our professional lives making films about the broken criminal justice system in the United States. The Return explores the impact of unjust policies at every level of society: for individuals, families and communities and in the legal and prison systems.

While the stories we tell in The Return are unique, they are also universal. Such stories unfold every day, all around the nation. The United States incarcerates more than 2.3 million people, more than any other nation in the world, and more than 650,000 return from prison each year only to encounter extraordinary and nearly insurmountable obstacles.

We spent the last four years making this film with as much intimacy and honesty as we could because it deals with so many issues we care about, from institutional racism to the lack of mental health support in prison to the criminalization of addiction and "collateral damage" to families and communities.
When we heard that lawyers and professors from Stanford Law School planned a California ballot initiative aimed at reforming the state's draconian "Three Strikes" law — the harshest in the nation — we were compelled to follow the story.

"Three Strikes" was sold to the public as a way of locking up the "worst of the worst," but its ultimate effect was to incarcerate more than 10,000 people — for life — for crimes as petty as trying to steal a car radio, possessing $10 worth of meth or purse-snatching.

In 2011, the United States Supreme Court declared that overcrowding in the California Prison System had become so extreme that it constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" — a direct result of "Three Strikes" life sentences and exaggerated second-strike sentences.

In anticipation of the vote on what became Proposition 36, we began producing a series of mini-docs profiling nonviolent offenders serving life sentences and the impact of those sentences on their families. Not surprisingly, we encountered stories of people struggling with extreme poverty, people undeniably treated as if their lives — in the words of one woman we interviewed — "could just be thrown away."

Many of those we interviewed came from families struggling with mental illness and drug addiction. Because African Americans and Latinos receive disproportionately longer sentences than whites, most were people of color, people who needed support, not incarceration. People who were locked up due to bad policy based on fear, without any understanding of the structural barriers they faced.

In 2012, when California voters passed Proposition 36 it was the first time in U.S. history that citizens voted to shorten the sentences of people currently in prison. When the election results were announced we knew we were going to make a feature film, and we hoped that we might finally be able to tell an uplifting story about the criminal justice system correcting itself. And while much of our story is inspiring, it is also heartbreaking. We sought to paint a realistic portrait of what it means to return to society after decades behind bars. We share beautiful moments of families reuniting, like Ken Anderson meeting his granddaughter for the first time, looking closely at her hands to see that they are nearly identical to the hands of the daughter he left behind when he was imprisoned for life. We witness other former prisoners thriving, too, like Kevin Bilal, once sentenced to 150-years-to-life and now rising professionally, but we also shed light on the obstacles and profound scars suffered by the recently freed and their families.

After decades of inhumane criminal justice policies, we stand now on the precipice of change. Bipartisan lawmakers are calling for sentencing reform, and uniting around legislation that prohibits employers from demanding that applicants disclose criminal records. Businesses are beginning to voluntarily "ban the box." Select states are just beginning to re-examine reentry strategies, and there is a growing movement to expand mental health and drug courts. U.S. Congressmen Elijah E. Cummings (D., Md.) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) recently hosted a screening of The Return on Capitol Hill to build support for federal sentencing reform in the House of Representatives.

The Return is designed to amplify the national conversation around this horrific human rights issue. We sincerely hope the film will inspire further efforts to correct the terrible injustice of misguided sentencing laws. While The Return tells individual stories, we must respond as a community and a country.

— Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway, Directors/Producers/Writers