Since the passage of Proposition 47 last November, over 1,000 former prisoners have been released back into society in Orange County – and there are many more to come.

The Orange County District Attorney’s office is currently processing as many as 4,500 petitions for early release and re-sentencing that have been filed since November.

For those seeking a second chance after paying their debt to society, it’s not easy to navigate life after prison. I know this firsthand, because ten years ago I was one of these individuals. Compared to neighboring counties, Orange County’s supportive re-entry services are limited, and there is little tracking to ensure that former prisoners are learning basic skills and finding jobs.

I got my GED in prison, enrolled in college, and received a certification in drug and alcohol counseling. But stories such as mine are the exception; over half of people who leave jail in Orange County return after three years. Prop. 47 and prison realignment have brought these issues to the forefront, and now is the time for counties to take serious steps to re-integrate people who were formerly incarcerated back into society.

Throughout the eleven years since I was released, I have seen time and time again individuals who remind me of my younger self – individuals who, lacking the support they need to re-enter society, fall back into their former lives of addiction and gang-banging. Many don’t have a choice. The unemployment rate for young adults exiting Orange County juvenile institutions after serving more than thirty days are as high as 55 percent.

We need to do better, and organizations such as Project Kinship are leading the effort to transform the support network that’s available to people who want to improve their lives. On March 6, 33 of us will graduate from their first class of a new certification program that is giving them the skills to do anti-violence work, community work, and the provision of restorative support groups so that their experiences can become assets in making Orange County a safer place.

Project Kinship’s community intervention worker certificate program has been the opportunity of a lifetime for me, as it is for the many of the other formerly incarcerated individuals graduating today.

Offered in partnership with the USC School of Social Work, it gives us a huge leg-up as we look for employment. It it also has taught us a community-based gang intervention approach that will help us tackle the numerous risk factors that push individuals toward a lack of addiction and crime, which include things like domestic violence, untreated mental health issues relating to trauma, disrupted family systems and unemployment.

This comprehensive training in violence prevention helps us understand our own experience, and empowers us to help at-risk youth and former prisoners from repeating the same mistakes.

I know that this approach works because I have lived it.

I have been the kid who ran back to his old ways after getting out of juvenile authority, but I have also been the man who moved beyond his past mistakes and was able to give back to his community and support a family. Understanding the causes of the problem is the difference that allows us to solve the problems, and Project Kinship’s community-based approach does exactly this.

But the good folks at Project Kinship and USC can’t train everyone. Our local, county, and state elected officials need to recognize the importance of providing resources like the ones Project Kinship provides for the many individuals who will be re-entering our communities in the not-so-distant future. Dedicating resources to programs like these will be crucial to ensure that our jails aren’t just revolving doors for men and women who don’t stand a chance.

We need to give these men and women the same opportunity I had – the opportunity to work hard and thrive.

Jesse Lagoa has worked as a drug and alcohol counselor in Orange County for 11 years. He is a recent graduate of the Community Intervention Worker (CIW) Certificate Program, offered by Project Kinship and the USC School of Social Work.

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