When 33-year-old Maria was just a little girl, her parents moved from Mexico to Oakland.
Her dad went to work in a restaurant, and her mom became a housekeeping manager at an Oakland hotel. They found housing in one of the rougher neighborhoods. So rough that Maria and her siblings were not allowed to go outside to play.
Once she started high school, she discovered that to be accepted, you needed to behave a certain way. Sometimes that meant cutting school. To further worsen matters, her parents separated, leaving Maria devastated and depressed.
“I really just did not care about anything anymore,” she said. “Once my parents split up, I just got more and more into drugs, skipping class, hanging with the wrong crowd.”
Maria started smoking and drinking. Eventually, she would try crystal meth, and it was from there that Maria’s drug problem would quickly escalate. Arrested at 18, her drug problems only became worse.
“I started running the streets, I left my house, and I was living on the streets and doing other things I shouldn't have done, but I did, just to survive,” Maria said.
This behavior would eventually lead her to jail, separated from her little boy. Not surprisingly, the in and out of jail took its toll on Maria, her mom, and her son.
“I would go in, get clean and then come out,” Maria said. “But then, I would just find my way back to the drugs, which led to other issues. I could not break free of it once I got out of jail.”
She said losing custody of her son was her biggest wake-up call.
Nationwide, the great majority of low-level felons are rearrested within three years of their release from jail. Often, for the same reasons that put them there in the first place; substance abuse was often a root cause, and there was little or no hope of leading a better life.
It was this recidivism rate that was concerning to District Attorney Nancy O’Malley.
“We kept seeing the same people coming into the system over and over again,” O’Malley said. “Individuals convicted of a low-level felony would very often be back in the system within one year of their release.”
District Attorney O’Malley knew there had to be a better way.
As it was at the time, she said “We couldn’t blame them for coming out of custody and returning to the same bad habits,” she explained. “Government had to own their responsibility for repeat offenders not being rehabilitated.”
What’s more, this vicious cycle comes with a hefty price tag when you tally up the money and resources dedicated to local police, the jails and the court system, as well as the obvious and unacceptable toll on victims.
To address the problem head-on, O’Malley gathered a group of experienced professionals - her most experienced attorneys, members of the legal, and public health community, as well as Alameda County community leaders, counselors, and substance abuse experts, to find a more enlightened and better way to significantly reduce recidivism.
“Always endeavoring to make things better, we asked ‘what can you do to change this paradigm ... what are we missing?’” Nancy O'Malley
The result was a program led by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, with La Familia selected as the service provider, working as day to day teammates with the ACJRP DA team, and with the DAs assigned to the arraignment and progress report courtrooms. The Alameda County Justice Restoration Project (ACJRP), designed to help about 150 young adults annually, is now in its fourth of five years and showing consistent overperformance based on independent objective measurements of outcomes.
Funded through a state grant, matched by county money, and significant national support from philanthropic financial contributions, including social impact investors committed to providing money but requiring successful outcomes pursuant to “Pay For Success”. Perhaps the county will ultimately save money using ACJRP as a model for the future, but most important, ACJRP is worthwhile regardless of savings because it is demonstrably decreasing the incidence of crime, arrest, and incarceration.
The program’s compassionate team understands all too well – most from first-hand experience – that there’s no easy fix. For those with felony records the challenges to a law-abiding life are many. Of the program’s participants who range from 18 to 34 years old, over half have had substance use issues and over half were homeless, and at least a third face behavioral health issues.
The District Attorney’s team worked with the judges and sheriff so that defendants could be offered the opportunity of ACJRP in court at the earliest stage of the criminal proceedings. The DA and La Familia representatives worked together to go to the court rooms throughout the County to explain ACJRP to the attorneys of defendants and answer their questions. Defense Attorneys welcomed the opportunity and most defendants found the program to be almost too good to be true and enrolled. It seemed too good to be true because ACJRP is also an alternative to incarceration because peer support, not custody time, is the model. In addition to avoiding custody at the beginning through enrollment, success in ACJRP guarantees dismissal of their cases.
Maria’s journey to getting the help she so desperately needed started when she and her attorney met the ACJRP team in court. With enrollment in ACJRP came Maria’s immediate release from custody. It was there that Maria met Rodney, an earnest man with an easy smile and warm demeanor. No stranger to incarceration himself, Rodney is the guy who picks you up from Santa Rita and brings you to the ACRP offices in Oakland to get you started.
“So many people, you know, they walk out these doors, down these steps and to what?” Rodney said. “They get to the bottom of this ramp, and there is nothing waiting for them.” With ACJRP there is a peer support plan that starts immediately.
Rodney said he knows how it feels to depart jail with no money, no job, no housing, and no plans. More than likely, he said, they’ll return to the same bad influences.
“It’s really just a matter of time before you give in to the old temptations,” he explained. “Maybe you got clean while you were in jail for six months, but it won’t take much time to slip back into the old habits.”
To be sure, Rodney doesn’t fit the social worker mold, and perhaps that’s his superpower as an Alameda County Justice Restoration Project coach, and certified peer support specialist.
“They look at me as an equal,” Rodney explained. “They look at the tattoos, they look at the gold teeth, and they see an equal … ‘Hey, he could be one of us.’”
In her conception of ACJRP District Attorney O’Malley envisioned coaches like Rodney as a crucial part of rehabilitation. They are sharing their own experiences, working with people in a supportive and engaging way to achieve their goals. In addition to their lived experience the ACJRP coaches all have completed national certification training as peer support and reentry specialists. DA O’Malley brought that formal training and certification to Alameda County for them and others, all free of charge.
“I feel like it’s my job to make sure this person doesn’t walk through those jail doors again,” Rodney said.
ACJRP offers a vast array of direct and navigational services including career development, job placement, academic/educational guidance, conflict resolution, life skills development, family reunification, substance abuse counseling, and behavioral health counseling. Importantly, it’s a safety net, when a participant is faced with hard choices.
Through ACJRP, Maria and others like her successfully turned their lives around.
Maria was one of the first participants in ACJRP. With the help of the Alameda County DA and the staff at La Familia, Maria got the opportunity, support, and guidance she needed. She got sober and secured an excellent job. After completing the program, she regained custody of her son.
“In the end, I wanted to end this cycle so I could reunite with my son,” Maria said. “He is everything to me, and now I have the support I needed to get my life on track and to be the mom I knew I could be – that I wanted to be.”
Maria said she could not have done any of it without her ACJRP coach Adam, who “always had the right words,” and offered support and suggestions to help her navigate the most difficult times. Through Adam, Maria realized that if she succeeded in ACJRP her success could help others have the same opportunity, and she remembers the importance of Adam's motivation.
Now Maria has followed in the footsteps of people like Adam and Rodney. She currently has a great job with A Better Way, Inc., a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit working as a bilingual advocate to help empower children and families to develop the life skills to promote their social, emotional, and economic well-being.
Maria and her mom bought a home, and more recently Maria erased her felony conviction by successfully completing ACJRP. The Alameda County Family Justice Center, founded by DA O’Malley, is now providing Maria with direct support and navigation to help her to continue improving her life. Members of the DA ACJRP team are also helping Maria after her graduation from ACJRP, including assistance in removing barriers in her life.
The DA team saw that ACJRP could be improved where participants transition from ACJRP services. With La Familia, the DA’s office created transition plans to provide for individual needs and a continuum of support after ACJRP funded services. Even after graduation from ACJRP in 24 months there may be additional needs such as further legal services, counseling, and especially job training and career development. ACJRP participants and ACJRP coaches themselves rely on the District Attorney’s Clean Slate team to get their records cleared through the court process. Through ACJRP and clean slate better opportunities become available, such as education, job training and jobs with a living wage that lead to careers.
Life experience from peer counselors provides an important link for those who find themselves lucky enough to be in the ACJRP program.
Part of that experience is brought by people like Doug. Doug successfully rebuilt his life after serving a long prison sentence. For years now, Doug has been a community leader and has specialized in helping individuals build better lives, often through getting quality jobs that that can turn into careers with a living wage. Doug was hired by DA O’Malley in 2019 to team up with another ACJRP program veteran, Lisa. Lisa had already been working on the ACJRP team for some time as a DA specialist in coordination with La Familia. Lisa had previously served state and federal prison terms and yet she rebuilt her life before being recruited by DA O'Malley. Today, Lisa and Doug are leaders in the community working to improve lives, especially through career building, as a way to reduce recidivism and improve public safety. DA O’Malley was inspired by the saying that “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” DA O’Malley brought nationally certified peer support training to Alameda County and all the ACJRP coaches have earned advanced certification side by side with Doug and Lisa. Equally important is O’Malley’s decision to dedicate internal resources to the program from the beginning. Led by an Assistant DA who has not only overseen ACJRP, but has been a daily contributor to its success since launch. Matching excellent peer support training with significant experience in the criminal justice system has proved to be a success in ACJRP and beyond, for those served and those who support them. Rodney, who supports so many, just got his own record erased through the teamwork of DA’s ACJRP and clean slate teams.
“Alameda County Justice Restoration Project provides a pathway for a better life,” DA O’Malley said. “Under the leadership of the District Attorney’s Office, we are changing the paradigm from simply supervision-based probation, to building outcomes of success. We understand that recidivism is a problem that affects communities throughout the county, the state, and the nation.”
Repeatedly jailing low-level felony offenders and monitoring them through probation without providing support and opportunities for employment doesn’t work and is a bad use of taxpayer dollars. Instead, O’Malley sees the benefits of hands-on rehabilitation in the successes of participants like Maria and envisions ACJRP as a model for the future. ACJRP is a new way of breaking the destructive cycle of recidivism and incarceration among low-level felony offenders by helping them build better - more hopeful lives and improving Public Safety at the same time.