Weekly through the winter in Santa Ana, a group of about 20 young men and women would meet in a circle to share their experiences about leadership.
The lessons they learned, however, weren’t from traditional sources but from the mean streets of Orange County or the corridors of California prisons.
The group was a mix — some who had spent a short time incarcerated, but turned their lives around, and others who spent decades behind bars.
In June, they graduated from the community leadership program created by Project Kinship, a small Santa Ana-based non-profit organization that helps the formerly incarcerated successfully reenter the community.
“They have many skills, but when they come out they have a hard time, because there are so many barriers and few resources…we are trying to build a strong cohort to help the community,” said Stephen Kim, a Project Kinship co-founder.
To Valerie Amezcua, this is a wonderful example of a developing wave in California of community services designed to prevent individuals, particularly those with drug and behavioral health issues, from recycling through jail or prison.
“This is a real reentry program,” said Amezcua, who is both a trustee of the Santa Ana School Board, which funds Project Kinship, and a supervising county probation officer.
It is one of several programs that have been created since 2014 when California voters approved Proposition 47, which called for releasing certain non-violent and drug offenders from state prisons.
Then California’s savings from that move — estimated by the Legislative Analyst’s Office to be $130 million in 2015 — would be available to fund rehabilitation services in local communities.
But before the release of these state funds, Project Kinship moved ahead with its leadership program, in partnership with USC’s social worker program, which hosted the graduation ceremony at its Orange County Academic Center in Irvine.
“It was an emotional experience,” said attendee Amezcua.
From a Carjacking to Law School
Among the 16 who completed the six-month program was Ramiro Torres Campos — formerly incarcerated for a carjacking/robbery, who in August starts law school at the University of Cincinnati.
The son of immigrants from Mexico, Torres’ recalled his early life as a difficult challenge. He had made it to UC Irvine, but took a wayward turn, leading to prison in 2007. After two years in prison, he again hit the books — graduating in 2012 from UC Irvine with a degree in psychology, as he also cleared parole.
Quoting Stephen B. Bright — president of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta — Torres said: “We are more than the worst thing we have ever done.”
In the leadership program, Torres said, “I gained an awareness of the services men and women coming out of prison need. There is not much there.”
This is a similar philosophy of advocates and some officials promoting reentry services.
On July 11, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis announced the opening of a Community Action Resource Engagement Center [CARE] in National City, offering reentry and other services.
“Law enforcement needs to address the underlying issues (such as poverty and substance abuse) that lead to criminal behavior,” said the Republican prosecutor.
Last February in San Diego, a former county jail previously turned into the East Mesa Reentry Facility opened a federally backed American Job Center — which over the next two years is to provide job-oriented services for an estimated 600 inmates before release.
Federal officials also recently awarded Orange County a $500,000 grant for an American Job Center to be located in a detention facility to serve inmates soon to be released.
A spokesman said the Sheriff’s Department is collaborating on the program with the Orange County Development Board, a partnership of county officials and businesses seeking to create jobs.
And last month, San Diego County received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to provide similar job services at its Las Colinas Detention Facility for women in Santee. The federal agency previously provided $500,000 for the men’s job center.
Questions About State Model
In Los Angeles last year, state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris in collaboration with Los Angeles County agencies launched an 80-bed, pilot reentry program — called Back on Track LA — at the Peter J. Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.
Nearly 60 individuals have been released through Back on Track LA after completing the 26-week, in-custody program, which is a partnership with several community colleges and a charter school. It also involves a year of follow-up assistance.
These programs are aimed at serial offenders, to break their return to incarceration for drug-related offenses, or associated petty crimes.
However, activists argue it is better to provide such services to those out of custody, with the individuals receiving assistance from community-based organizations.
Diana Zuniga, the Los Angeles statewide coordinator for Oakland-based Californians United for a Responsible Budget [CURB], said the Back on Track LA model is faulty.
“It doesn’t make sense to provide service in jails,” she said. “We need to shift our priorities. People should be able to get these services in the community. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough services.”
And all of these programs are funded by either short-term federal grants, private foundations or a school board — reflecting a lack of financial support from local or state government.
Yet, officials note, thousands of individuals annually are cycling though county jails but unable to find resources when released.
Edward Latessa — director of the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice — is a much-sought after authority on designing reentry programs, like Back on Track LA.
“If someone thinks you can punish or scare people out of bad behavior, that’s never going to happen,” Latessa said. “Typically, about 80 percent of those in jails have been there before. To argue the current system is working is a sign of insanity.”
For the future of reentry programs, Latessa added: “The biggest challenge will be taking this up in scale.”
Officials at the Orange County Public Defender’s Office say about 50 people a week arrive seeking such assistance.
David A. Dworakowski, an assistant public defender who assists such clients, said his agency is engaging in “a new paradigm” — where beyond legal representation, they are helping clients “get their life back together.”
From Prop. 47, the California 2016-17 budget includes $35.6 million for a pool of funds for substance/behavioral health services.
Next month, the California Board of State and Community Corrections in Sacramento will open a competitive bidding process for counties seeking from that pool reentry program grants, which are to be awarded early next year.
About a decade ago, the state agreed to build a reentry center in Orange County as part of a package for jail expansion, but the Board of Supervisors rejected it.
In San Diego, the new job center is a partnership of Second Chance, a non-profit community organization managing the facility, and county justice agencies.
Deb Furlong, director of adult services at Second Chance, said the center is designed to “provide job readiness to inmates prior to their release,” and assist afterwards.
Non-violent inmates join the program about six months before they are to be released.
“We try to structure a plan prior to their release to minimize the pressure and stress they will face,” she said.
At Back on Track LA, Latessa and his staff trained county personnel in the keys to making reentry work.
This involves concepts like “thinking for change” — a meld of anger management, aggression replacement training, and cognitive behavior intervention.
Back on Track LA’s population is repeat offenders, some with 20 prior incarcerations, officials said, so they are at high risk to recidivate.
“The key is to enhance motivation, teaching them skills to learn,” said Latessa, who noted they try to cut recidivism by 20 to 30 percent. Equally important is “matching the type of service with the risk of the individual.”
If low risk individuals are housed in high-supervision facilities, he said, they get worse.
Rex Dalton can be reached directly at [email protected].