A Fair Chance At A Second Chance

Dozens of people testified in support of the fair chance motions, including several who had been formerly incarcerated, nonprofit service providers, business representatives, faith leaders, and more. (All photos by Dave Franco/Board of Supervisors.)

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a pair of motions aimed at giving all Los Angeles County residents a fair chance at employment, including those with arrest and conviction records.

The first motion, which lists Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas as author and Supervisor Hilda L. Solis as co-author, calls for establishing fair chance policies for those seeking Los Angeles County government jobs. With more than 100,000 workers, Los Angeles County is the region’s largest employer.

“We simply want to provide a ‘fair chance’ to everyone who aspires to become good citizens,” Board Chairman Ridley-Thomas said. “The intent is to expand opportunities to our underserved and vulnerable constituents while creating safer neighborhoods.”

He added, “This isn’t simply a matter of altruism – it’s fundamentally a matter of self-interest.” He noted when the formerly incarcerated cannot get jobs that help them become self-sufficient, they are more likely to return to a life of crime or to rely on taxpayer-funded social services.

A beneficiary of Homeboy Industries testifies in favor of the fair chance motions.

His motion also sought to expand the fair chance ordinance to veterans, former foster youth, people with disabilities, the homeless, and other populations that often face barriers to employment. The Board called for a report back in 90 days.

The second motion approved by the Board would apply fair chance policies to businesses that contract with the County or operate in unincorporated areas. It was authored by Supervisor Solis and co-authored by Board Chair Ridley-Thomas.

“The best way to protect public safety is to help people who want to turn their lives around find a job,” Supervisor Solis said. “Today’s motion will launch an inclusive stakeholder process to make LA County a leader in giving vulnerable populations a fair chance at getting back on their feet. We hope that other municipalities will follow and adopt similar policies to help these men and women have a second chance.”

In California, one in four adults has an arrest or conviction record that can diminish their chances of getting a job or a place to live even after they have paid their debt to society.

LA County Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald and Judge Peter Espinoza, executive director of the LA County Office of Diversion and Reentry, testify in favor of the fair chance motions.

LA County’s Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald disputed the notion that fair chance policies are “soft on crime,” describing it instead as “smart on crime.” She told the Board, “The people coming out of prisons, Division of Juvenile Justice facilities, juvenile camps and halls, and jails, to show up to interview for a job are not engaged in criminal behavior – they’re asking for an opportunity. A lack of opportunity is actually a public safety problem because when people can’t get a job, or housing, or live in healthy communities, they engage in behavior that puts the public at risk.”

Gonzalo Alvarado entered the justice system as a juvenile, educated himself behind bars, and became a mentor and translator for other inmates. However, he has struggled to find a job since his release from prison. He told the Board, “I humbly ask just for an opportunity to have my American dream, to have a place in this society that I love so much.”

The fair chance motions would not give anyone preferential treatment nor call for hiring an unqualified person with an arrest or conviction record. Instead, the proposed policies are intended to eliminate discriminatory obstacles for competent candidates, with the goal of boosting the economy, promoting public safety, and reducing dependence on public benefits.

Board Chairman Ridley-Thomas hears testimony on fair chance motions.

Magnolia Housing Program Offers Second Chances

All photos by Bryan Chan / Board of Supervisors

A newly opened supportive housing project in the heart of Koreatown offers men exiting the criminal justice system a real chance at turning their lives around.

Far too often, people coming out of jail face an uphill battle finding a job, a place to live, or both. With the Anti-Recidivism Coalition’s (ARC) Magnolia Housing Program, 22 men who recently emerged from the Division of Juvenile Justice or prison now have keys to their new home, as well as an opportunity to receive job training with guaranteed apprenticeships in the building and construction trades.

ARC Founder Scott Budnick and Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas welcome a tenant to the Magnolia Housing Program

“Today, we celebrate the Magnolia Housing Program, a perfect blend of innovation and common sense,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Successful reintegration after a period of incarceration is not easy, but organizations like ARC are helping those who made a mistake, paid their dues and are trying to get back on their feet.”

“We look forward to bright futures for each tenant entering these doors,” he added.

One resident is already enrolled in the Metro Rail Mechanics program at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. Another just joined the plumbers union and is working full time. All of the current residents are working and 85 percent are enrolled in school.

ARC founder and president Scott Budnick said, “Offering stable housing, pathways to employment, mentorship and counseling services instills hope for deserving young men and women and ultimately creates safer and healthier communities.”

Founded in 2013, ARC provides a supportive network and reentry services to formerly incarcerated individuals, and advocates for fair and just policies in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The Magnolia Housing Program is modeled after ARC’s Bromont Housing Program, which saw 76 percent of its participants employed after their second year of residence, and a recidivism rate of only 6 percent.

At Magnolia, 22 men will live in a newly renovated house, with mentorship on-site. Los Angeles Trade Technical College and the LA County Federation of Labor created a first-of-its-kind training program that will help them secure lasting career opportunities. Other members of the collaborative include the LA County Probation Department and the LA/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council.

“The Magnolia Housing Program is an ‘uncommon common sense’ approach to fighting recidivism,” said grateful resident Steven Parker. “It’s been an awesome experience,” said Emiliano Lopez, another Magnolia resident. “I get to share space with a lot of people who are enthusiastic and want to better their lives.”

In addition to supporting the Magnolia Housing Program, Los Angeles County is committed to doing more to help provide second chances to those who have already paid their debt to society. Chairman Ridley-Thomas, in collaboration with Supervisor Hilda Solis, plans to present a motion July 11 to establish a comprehensive Fair Chance Ordinance. If passed, it will create an outreach campaign and enhance training and curriculum for populations that have been excluded from the workforce, including those with felony convictions.

Seeking Justice for Victims

Exonerating the Wrongly Convicted

Board of Supervisors chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas presented a scroll honoring Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent (LPI) for their work in exonerating the wrongly convicted.

“The criminal justice system can only function if it is fair, just and protects the innocent,” Board Chair Ridley-Thomas said. “Unfortunately, sometimes the system gets it wrong and it is often people of color who bear the brunt of these wrongful convictions.

“Since 2011, LPI has secured the release of five clients who served a collective 121 years in prison for crimes they did not commit,” he added. “They have also given hope to countless other clients who know that somebody is fighting for them.”

At LPI, law students work in a yearlong clinic supervised by its founder, Professor Ethical Advocacy Laurie Levenson, legal director Paula Mitchell, program director Adam Grant, and other staff. To date, LPI has evaluated more than 1,400 cases and trained more than 130 students.

“We should never give up on securing justice, no matter how long it takes,” Prof. Levenson said. “Each person’s life is precious.”

“If anything, we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that those who are wrongfully convicted get the help they need and that we take steps to prevent wrongful convictions in the future,” she added. That is our mission; that is our promise.”

LPI successfully exonerated Marco Contreras, who was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder and attempted robbery in connection with a shooting at a Compton gas station. LPI found new evidence that led to his exoneration. He was released in March after serving 20 years for a crime he did not commit. As a result of LPI’s work, other men have been charged with the crime.

Contreras expressed heartfelt gratitude to LPI during the scroll presentation. “I’d like to first of all thank the Loyola Law School for everything they’ve done and also for the other work they’re doing,” he said. “I am grateful to be here today. Thank you, everybody.”

 

Addressing Implicit Bias Countywide

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Testifying before the Board on implicit bias training. L-R: Susan Burton, A New Way of Life; Probation Commissioner Cyn Yamashiro; and Patricia Guerrera of Community Coalition. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion by its chairman, Mark Ridley-Thomas, to enhance the training of Los Angeles County employees to stifle implicit biases and subconscious prejudices that adversely affect public service.

“As a Board, our mandate centers on a commitment to social justice for all as an administrative responsibility,”Board Chairman Ridley-Thomas said before the vote. “As the environment in which we work and serve becomes more diverse, we simply need to up our game.”

“This should not be construed as a stick, but more of a tool to help respective County departments, and the employees therein, to do their jobs more effectively,” he added. “We seek to root out prejudicial dispositions, and do it in a way that celebrates the dignity and worth of every single person with whom our employees come in contact.

Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis spoke out in support of the motion, as did Inspector General Max Huntsman and Probation Commissioner Cyn Yamashiro and several others.

Centinela Youth Services director Jessica Ellis told the Board, “As experts in conflict resolution, we know how easy it is for all of us humans to unconsciously label each other. We also know the damage that this does, particularly when a person who is in a position of power, who is in control of resources, is unaware of their biases with respect to the people they are meant to serve.

Melanie Ochoa, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, also applauded the motion, saying biases can do serious harm, particularly in law enforcement. “When law enforcement targets individuals because of their identity or responds more severely to harmless or ambiguous conduct by minorities than by whites, it impedes effective policing,” she said.

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In foreground, Jessica Ellis of Centinela Youth Services. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors.

“Biased policing is a public safety concern,” she added. “As we have seen, many instances involving African American civilians that culminate in officers’ uses of force – deadly or otherwise – evolve from situations where an individual who was not actually engaging in criminal activity was nonetheless viewed as suspicious and approached by the police, or were engaged based on minor infractions that elicited more aggressive policing actions than the same infractions committed by others.”

In August 2016, the Board approved a separate motion by Board Chair Ridley-Thomas to examine implicit bias and cultural competency training within the County’s law enforcement departments and agencies, and to study the best constitutional policing practices in the nation. The County’s Chief Executive Office found that few departments and agencies in County government mandate regularly scheduled training on implicit bias and cultural competency, and none evaluate the effectiveness of such training in operations and contact with the public.

The directives in Board Chair Ridley-Thomas’ motion include developing and enhancing protocols to examine employees’ limitations with cultural competency, and the root causes and impact of prejudices.

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In foreground, Sunny Kang of St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church, sitting beside Melanie Ochoa of ACLU. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors.