KERN COUNTY - Thousands of inmates are being released early into our streets, and many are re-offending. But, a new county-funded program is hoping to break the revolving door that is Kern County's jails.
The county program started in January. It releases inmates early, but instead of sending them to the streets, they're enrolled in a community-based rehabilitation program. And according to jail staff, it already has a high success rate.
"I'm going to have a car today you know," said Jeanette Wheeler.
Getting a car means Jeanette Wheeler won't have to walk to the bus stop anymore. "I'm very excited because I'm tired of walking and it's hot," said Wheeler.
Six months ago, driving was just a dream for Wheeler because she was in jail, serving a two-year sentence for possession of a stolen vehicle.
"I've been a tweaker. I've been addicted to meth since I was 12 years old. I've been in and out of Juvenile Hall and prison ten or 12 times," said Wheeler.
But, her last jail stay was different. Just before she was arrested, Wheeler's husband was shot dead in east Bakersfield during a drug deal.
"I don't want to die or lose anyone else, you know, so this was a eye opener," said Wheeler.
After serving just five months of her two-year sentence, Wheeler agreed to enroll in one of the jail's new county-funded rehabilitation programs.
"When I got here, at first I wanted to leave. I wanted to just cut off my monitor you know," said Wheeler.
After a few weeks though, Wheeler decided to stay. "This program is the best thing that's ever happened to me," said Wheeler.
Wheeler is one of 244 inmates released early into seven community-based programs. The jail started the collaboration this year, making the program part of an inmate's sentence.
"There is a consequence," said Lt. Greg Gonzales of the Kern County Sheriff's Department. "If they don't program and work with the provider to try to help themselves they can come back to jail."
The county spends nearly $700,000 of state realignment funds to house and rehabilitate the inmates.
"If there's more, I am hoping to see that number grow by double," said Lt. Gonzales. "Now over the last three or four months they're staying. They're getting jobs. They're reconnecting with their families."
Right now, the program has an 80 percent success rate. Omar Perez is part of that 80 percent. Around Christmas time, Perez was arrested selling marijuana.
"I was just trying to make some money to bring my kids gifts," said Perez.
He was sentenced to three years in jail, but after three months he was released with an ankle monitor to Operation Fresh Start. The program gave him a place to stay, something to eat and eventually helped him get a job at a tire shop.
"When he start, he know nothing and now he's better than me," said Chano Cerrano, owner of Pacific Tire.
"It feels real good man, you know," said Perez. "No, I am not ever going back to jail that I can guarantee it."
Gina Lettiere is another former inmate who's making it.
"Something really changed in my heart this time," said Lettiere.
Lettiere fell into a life of crime at age 32.
"Had some sort of mental breakdown where I just reached to drugs, and the heroin addiction just grabbed a hold of my life and I lost everything," said Lettiere.
She lost her job, home, car and custody of her son.
"You know, I never even had a speeding ticket until 2010 when I first went to jail," said Lettiere.
Lettiere wound up in jail six times in two years.
"The bus would drop me off downtown and I would walk right to what we called the 'connections house'," said Lettiere.
This last time, Lettiere was sentenced to two years in jail, but after only three months she was released to Women of Worth.
"This place has been a life saver," said Lettiere.
Now she has a part-time job at a pool. Her roommate Jeanette Wheeler has a full-time job at a Jack-in-the-Box.
"I would have to walk. I would have blisters from my monitor. Oh my God, it was hard," said Lettiere. "If I'm doing it and I have a criminal history from like the Stone Age."
Then Wheeler said it's possible for more to follow in her footsteps to transform from a life behind bars to a life above par.
"It's hard work, but it's a good struggle you know," said Wheeler.
Once inmates complete a program, they're released on supervision either with the Probation Department or Sheriff's Office.