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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.

Pot’s legal – what happens next? 

By Mark Ridley-Thomas

California is only months away from offering thousands of retailers a license to sell recreational marijuana to people ages 21 or older. It is the will of the voters, yet I remain concerned about the impact that recreational/non-medical cannabis commerce could have on the health and safety of neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles County. I wonder how this “brave new world” will make circumstances, conditions, even life itself better. Currently, all commercial cannabis is banned in the unincorporated areas of the county, and if it were up to me, I’d keep it that way until I felt confident that safeguards were in place to protect our communities.

As things stand, it is imperative that the Board of Supervisors enacts responsible regulation and effective oversight, developed with input from a wide range of stakeholders, to ensure that creating a commercial market for marijuana would not lead to overly negative consequences. We have a responsibility to serve all 10 million residents of the county — not just the voters who said yes to Proposition 64 — particularly minors who don’t have the right to vote but certainly deserve our protection.

Our track record has been less than stellar in getting a handle on establishments that sell dependence-inducing substances. Liquor stores are a common sight in many parts of the county, and bear at least part of the blame for higher rates of addiction, blight, petty and violent crime and diminished opportunities for residents in the immediate vicinity. Because unfettered cannabis commerce can compound those problems and sabotage economic revitalization, we should learn from Colorado and Washington, the first states to legalize recreational marijuana (in 2012).

According to its Department of Revenue, Colorado raked in almost $200 million in taxes in 2016 as marijuana sales hit $1.3 billion. But its Department of Public Health and Environment reported that 6% of pregnant women used marijuana, potentially endangering their unborn children’s health. At least 16,000 children were at risk of being exposed to secondhand marijuana smoke at home.

Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment also found that 1 in 4 adults age 18 to 25 used marijuana in the last month, and 1 in 8 adults used marijuana daily or near daily. It also reported that more than 5% of high school students used marijuana daily or near daily. Weekly cannabis use at such a young age is associated with impaired learning and memory and could lead to psychotic symptoms in adulthood.

In Washington, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 17% of fatal crashes in 2014 involved drivers who had recently used marijuana, more than double the percentage before legalization.

Though the perils hysterically alleged in “Reefer Madness” have long been debunked, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has found that early and regular marijuana use is associated with use of other illicit drugs, including cocaine, hallucinogens, prescription opioids and heroin.

Moreover, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported that Los Angeles County fatal crashes involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana began to go up after 1996, increased 360% from 2003 to 2004, maintained an upward trajectory until 2008 before decreasing in 2009, and steadily rose again by 60% from 2010 to 2014. The increases coincided with the passage of the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized medical marijuana; the initiation of the Medical Marijuana ID Card Program; and the decriminalization of possessing 1 ounce or less of marijuana, making it an infraction instead of a misdemeanor.

Los Angeles County’s Office of Cannabis Management is working closely with the Board of Supervisors, various departments and a broad array of stakeholders to develop comprehensive and reasonable ordinances and policies for both medical and recreational marijuana. One of the goals is to create an accountable and safe marketplace for the responsible use of marijuana rather than revel in overstated economic opportunity. Let’s be clear that gangs and cartels operate outside regulation, and dismantling this illegal market operating within saturated communities will be daunting.

Though dispensaries tend to be concentrated in low-income neighborhoods of color, less than 1% are owned by people of color, according to the L.A. County Department of Regional Planning. Apparently, racial and economic discrimination does not stop at the doorstep of the cannabis industry.

Proposition 64 proponents say it will generate tax revenue, business profit and jobs. They also claim that it would improve criminal justice by putting fewer people — historically people of color — in jail for smoking a joint. However, that remains to be seen as disparate treatment is a defining feature of law enforcement in too many communities in L.A. County.

A call for effective oversight should not be misconstrued as an attempt to thwart the will of the people, or to wage a new war on drugs. Instead, as a “card-carrying progressive” I consider it due diligence to ensure that the proliferating sale of marijuana, a mind-altering substance, will not wreak havoc on our neighborhoods, particularly those already beset with many other challenges. We certainly don’t want to make matters worse, and, right now, my concern is that commercial cannabis has the potential to do just that.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and represents the 2nd Supervisorial District.

Click here to read the Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times.

Study Reveals College Student Homelessness and Hunger

Lending urgency to Los Angeles County’s sweeping plan for addressing homelessness, the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) revealed a survey of its students that found more than half were unsure about having a steady place to live, while one in five experienced homelessness in the past year.

“Education is the great equalizer in our society, and we must do all that we can to ensure the students in the LACCD system are able to undertake their studies without worrying about having a roof over their heads or enough food to eat,” County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas said during a press conference at LA Trade-Technical College (LATTC).

Almost 6,000 of LACCD’s 134,000 students took the Survey on Food & Housing Insecurity. Among the findings: 18.6 percent of respondents experienced homelessness during 2016, while 55 percent struggled to pay their rent or mortgage and utility bills, and/or had to endure substandard housing conditions in unstable neighborhoods. Meanwhile, 62.7 percent of respondents reported not having enough to eat.

Board Chairman Ridley-Thomas Applauds Myriah Smiley for her resilience

Myriah Smiley, a 19-year-old former foster youth experiencing homelessness in Compton, is studying at LATTC in hopes of starting her own small business someday. She is staying at a friend’s house while awaiting public housing, and occasionally goes hungry. “It’s hard, but I’m still going,” she said.

LACCD Board of Trustees President Scott Svonkin and Trustee Mike Eng said the district would make it easier for students to access on-campus and community resources that would help them secure housing, financial, healthcare and other assistance. The district also plans to let homeless students use on-campus shower facilities and other amenities, and to train faculty, staff and administrators to be more aware of their homeless students’ needs.

Board President Svonkin said, “LACCD has a responsibility to not only educate its students but to ensure that our students are in the best possible position to receive quality education without being hungry in our classrooms.” Trustee Eng added, “By acting on the recommendations contained in the report, we can ensure that our students have the opportunity to succeed without the burden of food insecurity and the stress of homelessness.”

Los Angeles County’s $30-billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 factors in $260 million in revenue from voter-approved Measure H, a ballot measure to fund services and housing for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. The strategy is laid out in the County’s Homeless Initiative website.

Officials of LA County, LACCD and the LA Homeless Services Authority pledge action on homelessness