Posts Tagged ‘Amity Foundation’

Sheriff, Supervisors, and LA County’s Most Vulnerable

March 15, 2014

My article in today’s LA Progressive:

There have been more Popes elected than LA sheriffs in the last 80 years.

This year, progressives need to choose carefully in the LA County June election. Not only will we be voting for sheriff but will also fill the supervisory seats currently held by Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavky in the First and Third Districts. There may be low turnout and low interest for these contests but at the March 13 general meeting of the LA Regional Reentry Partnership–”LARRP”– I learned why these offices matter to anyone concerned with social justice, public safety, or the rational expenditure of taxpayer money.

But first, here’s what else I learned.

LARRP brings together service providers, government agencies, advocates, and clients all concerned with the reintegration into the community of the formerly incarcerated in ways that are humane and consonant with public safety.

The first time I attended a LARRP meeting, back in July, executive director Peggy Edwards pointed out, “Our reentry providers haven’t looked at themselves as homeless providers and our homeless providers haven’t looked at themselves as reentry providers.”

That has changed and collaboration is now the order of the day with open communication and computerized and filtered lists of clients and services.

Hazel Lopez of the Lamp Community, which provides services on Skid Row, said, “Reentry and homelessness are not separate issues. People coming out of prison are without housing and that is the definition of homeless.”

Danielle Wildkress of the Corporation for Supportive Housing explained, “The Skid Row Housing Trust didn’t think of themselves as reentry providers, but it turned out 60% of the people in their housing were on probation.”

Lopez described a new initiative, the Coordinated Entry Systems-Access to Housing, which has been funded in part by the United Way, while Wildkress explained the workings of the new Jail In-Reach 2.0 program which seeks to end recidivism and the cycle of homelessness.

On Skid Row

On Skid Row

Both initiatives follow similar models:

“Housing First“

Don’t expect clients to be stabilized physically, mentally, and free of substance abuse before offering them housing. Experience now shows that once people are actually living in permanent supportive housing, it becomes possible for them to get stabilized.

But where is such housing to come from? LA has nowhere near enough to meet the need. Troy Vaughn, also of Lamp, acknowledged, “There’s limited capacity to do development projects” for permanent supportive housing and even when a project can be funded and approved, “it doesn’t get up fast enough.” In the past, he explained, people assumed there had to be a single facility where residents and wraparound services could be housed together. Now Lamp is trying a new approach. Through negotiation, the owner of the Alexandria Hotel agreed to set aside 60
units for chronically homeless people coming out of the hospital. Ten have already moved in. Lamp agreed to find all the supportive services the residents need. Service providers will travel to the client. Vaughn hopes if the program is a success and the residents in the Alexandria remain stabilized, other property owners and landlords will join the effort.

Foster collaboration and streamline services

In LA County, as in many urban areas, people in great need often go without help as they find themselves unable to find their way through a landscape of scattered services and no unified effort. Both of these programs identify clients through street outreach or in-reach into hospitals and jails where they can begin work with a vulnerable person before discharge. Each client is paired with a “Navigator” who helps with documents and ID and makes connections to all appropriate and available supportive services. The Navigator makes sure there’s a bed available–even a temporary one–while actively working toward the goal of permanent supportive housing. When people leave jail, their own Navigator is waiting at the gate to greet them and remains a familiar, friendly presence in the client’s life until new relationships are built with the post-release team.

Put decision-making in the clients’ hands

Navigators offer options but clients are never coerced and are free to accept or reject housing offers. Every step of the way, clients explain what kinds of help they want and need. For example, Kelli Poole, an employment specialist with Chrysalis, who works with Jail in-Reach 2.0, recognizes that many people would write off her clients as unemployable. She said the clients themselves, however–far from wanting to rely on handouts–consider it a priority to prepare themselves for getting and holding down a job.

Prioritize the most vulnerable.

“Usually when a new building comes online in Skid Row,” Lopez explained, “people start lining up 2-3 days in advance to get an application.” Obviously–and as a survey confirmed–it’s almost exclusively the younger and healthier Skid Row residents who get the applications and housing.

People who are chronically homeless, repeatedly incarcerated, and disabled with physical, mental health, or substance abuse issues tend to be excluded. With the new programs, they are the priority. Not only is their need the greatest but, as constant users of ambulances, emergency rooms, hospital stays, jail and law enforcement resources, they are the greatest drain on public funds. Providing the most vulnerable with intensive and extensive services can save lives while saving money. A study of a similar program outside LA found that a chronically homeless person cost $67,376 in public taxpayer monies in a year while housing that person and providing full wraparound services cost only $19,399.

Which brings us to one of the reasons why we need to vote carefully for County Supervisors: What will the Supes do with such considerable savings? Put the money back into housing and reentry services or stash it elsewhere, continuing a tradition of neglect?

Lynne Lyman, the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance and LAARP co-chair, Policy and Advocacy, cited other reasons for dissatisfaction with the current board.

Thousands of people in LA County jails have not been convicted of any crime and languish (at considerable taxpayer expense) behind bars only because they can’t afford bail. While the sheriff has stated his willingness to release some under supervision after a careful risk assessment, he does not have the authority to do so without approval from the county supervisors. It has not so far been possible to get a majority vote granting this authority.

While the supervisors were given $750 million by Sacramento to cover some of the realignment costs involved in sending prisoners back to the county from the state prison system, only a small percent was allocated for reentry services. Much of that small amount doesn’t even make it to the service providers and goes unspent.

Then there’s the plight of LA county’s Three-Strikers. In November 2012, California voters recognized the unjust and unintended consequences of life sentences handed down to nonviolent offenders. With Prop 36, they approved a measure that would offer the possibility of release. A year and four months later, 700 Los Angeles county Three-Strikers who are eligible for release remain incarcerated because they have not yet been afforded a day in court to show they have a place to go and a reentry plan. For men and women with chronic medical or psychiatric conditions–which have often been exacerbated during a decade or more in prison–or who have special needs such as wheelchair-accessible housing, a feasible reentry plan can remain out-of-reach, especially because the board of supervisors (unlike their counterparts in other counties) have refused to allocate any funding for Prop 36ers.

As for the race to fill the sheriff’s office, as voters consider the large field of candidates, it’s important to note that while the department has cooperated enthusiastically with the In-Reach program, here, too, there is a struggle over funds and an underutilization of community-based diversion programs.

Lyman notes that 40 women were released under an alternatives to incarceration program but though community placement is considerably less expensive than jail housing, the sheriff’s department money retained the savings and refused to pay anything for the beds. The alternatives program can reach only a limited number of appropriate individuals as long as nonprofits, already operating on austerity budgets, have to offer their full services for free, relying on fundraising and grant writing while the sheriff’s department holds onto all funding.

Lyman and co-chair Peter Laarman of Justice not Jails, suspecting that county officials really had no clue as to the level of professionalism and effectiveness of community-based residential programs, have led people from the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office on eye-opening tours of the Amity Foundation , the Tarzana Treatment Centers, and other programs that should be trusted and funded by LA County. A bed with full wraparound services at the Amity Foundation would cost the taxpayer one-tenth of the what the
sheriff would currently prefer to pay in sending prisoners to Kern County.

The sheriff and the supervisors continue to favor a $2 billion jail construction and expansion plan over the fiscally sound use of split sentencing and community-based programs that offer offenders realistic opportunities to turn their lives around.

There are two chances coming up to hear all the candidates vying for your vote for the office of sheriff.

The meeting concluded with a presentation by Pamela Jordan of A New Way of Life about her work as Housing Coordinator for the Reentry Family Reunification pilot program which now serves 25 formerly incarcerated individuals. The goal is to make it possible for the soon-to-be-released to move in with willing family members in Section 8 housing under the program of the Los Angeles City (not County) Housing Authority.

In the past, even families that very much wanted to welcome a member back home were held back by fear. Could they manage the person’s behavior? Would they be risking eviction if their loved one relapsed or committed a new offense?

The pilot program makes sure that their family member gets all necessary supportive services. The system will also sever culpability, so a law-abiding family will not be penalized if the person they’ve offered a home to should happen to reoffend.

What all three innovative programs–CES, Jail In-Reach 2.0, and Reentry Family Reunification–have in common (besides changing lives and neighborhoods for the better) is that they are small scale and underfunded with no guarantees they can continue.

This is why progressives need to ask direct questions of the countywide candidates well before the June 3rd election. When we simply let an offender out the gate with no place to go and no resources, we are often guaranteeing that he or she will reoffend. Continuing an emphasis on punishing people after the fact of crime instead of devoting resources to preventing crime and reducing recidivism serves no one. Good reentry programs benefit all of us. We need to know which candidates are ready to take an ethical and rational approach to homelessness and reentry and which are determined to continue a system that’s proved itself to be inequitable, ineffective, and unsustainable.

From State Prison to LA County – my article today in LA Progressive

July 15, 2013
From State Prison to LA County: Ready or Not (via LA Progressive)

As I write this Saturday morning, thousands of California prison inmates enter their fifth day of hunger strike to protest — among other abuses — long-term solitary confinement, otherwise known in the US and around the world as torture. Even after…

Duc Ta is Free!

July 11, 2013

I am so excited I can’t wait to share the news. This morning I walked into the conference room for a meeting of the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership and heard someone call my name. It was Duc Ta! Just released and living in transitional housing with the Amity Foundation and representing Amity to ask questions and speak from the perspective of the incarcerated. He said he is taking it slow, just getting out, getting himself together. There will be more news to share soon. On parole, but free!

I’ll be writing about the LARRP in the next few days but wanted to post this right away as I know people check this site for news about Duc. He’s not ready to see a lot of people or talk a lot yet, but I hope to provide updates soon. Many thanks to all of you who kept the faith and cared for so many years.

Unlikely Friends: When Victims and Perpetrators Meet

April 11, 2013

Unlikely Friends

A few years back, after I spent an evening at a halfway house for men on parole, Sister Mary Sean Hodges challenged me. She has worked tirelessly through the Office of Restorative Justice, LA Archdiocese, on behalf of incarcerated men and women and those seeking to reenter society. She liked what I’d done advocating for gang members, prisoners, and criminal justice reform, but in her view I had fallen short. “You have to meet the victims, too,” she said.

I did, and soon felt overwhelmed and helpless in the face of so much pain and rage. I wished there could be another way–a better way–to cope with such grief, but when I heard of other ways, I was cynical. I loved Reginald Denny for forgiving the teens who beat him unconscious during LA’s civil unrest, but, hey, with his head injury, he remembered nothing of the attack and I figured that made it easier to forgive. As for other cases I heard about, seriously, would you open your heart to your child’s murderer? I wanted to admire such compassion but it seemed more like delusional naïveté. You’d have to be a saint–or crazy.

So it was with a sense of relief, hope, and gratitude that I watched a sneak preview of Leslie Neale’s new documentary, Unlikely Friends, [] about victims who reached out to the perpetrators whose brutal crimes had caused so much hurt and pain. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the remarkable relationships she documents is that they actually make sense.

Click for the trailer:

The seed for the film was planted about 20 years ago by a bank robber named Nelson who was featured in Neale’s first documentary, Road to Return, about an innovative post-release program for the formerly incarcerated. After serving his time, Nelson had returned to the crime scene out of an urgent need to apologize. What struck Neale was not only Nelson’s sense of guilt, but the impact his act had on the teller who’d had his gun held to her head. For twelve years, she said she’d lived with the fear he would come back and kill her. Meeting him, sharing stories and family photos, and hearing his apology freed her at last from the terror that had refused to let go. There was a bigger story here, and Neale knew immediately she wanted to tell it from the victims’ perspective.

Leslie Neale

As she recently explained, “Just as reformers say that prisoners need to be involved in prison reform, I think victims need to have more of their voice heard as well.” Usually when that voice is heard, it’s from survivors such as Harriet Salarno who appears in the film and founded Crime Victims United, a nationwide organization that has been in the forefront of putting victims rights on the public policy agenda. Her work lobbying for tough-on-crime legislation, supporting victims and their families as they attend parole board hearings to present their objections to release, is both easier to understand and strongly validated by the adversarial system. “Victims who choose to forgive aren’t really given the time of day,” Neale says. People are enraged by them. People call them crazy. Some keep quiet about the choice they’ve made, but some are willing to speak and Leslie Neale wanted their stories told.

She began to learn about the movement for restorative justice which is based on the understanding that when a person commits a crime, it’s not just a law that’s been violated; someone–or a whole community–has been harmed. Punishment alone–though necessary and often satisfying–will not repair damage or help victims move forward with their lives. Restorative justice brings offenders and victims together to provide a chance for perpetrators to make amends and to promote social and individual healing.

In recent years, some California schools have successfully used the restorative justice model to address school discipline issues. Some police departments have worked with community-based facilitators to address offenses such as vandalism and shoplifting. But could restorative justice really be appropriate for murderers? After watching Unlikely Friends, I began to think that victims of violent crime and their perpetrators are the people who need it most.

To cite just one of the unlikely friendships in the film, there’s Steve Watt.

Self-described as pro-gun, pro-Republican, he was a Wyoming state trooper who believed “if you’re not a cop or a family member of a cop, you’re a dirtbag.” Not exactly a bleeding heart. Then a bank robber named Mark put five bullets in him, taking out one of his eyes and leaving him in constant pain, unable to get around without crutches. “I wanted Mark dead,” he recalls. Today he calls Mark one of his best friends.

Mark and Steve

Please watch the documentary before you jump to the wrong conclusion that Steve Watt must be soft in the heart or the head.

Steve and other crime victims in Unlikely Friends didn’t met the offenders in order to love them. They went seeking relief and answers, sometimes confrontationally as when Debbie in Arizona insisted that her son’s killer look at photos of the young man whose life he had taken. For Debbie, who had been obsessed with the desire to see her son’s killer dead–whether by the death penalty or by her own hands–what she calls “forgiveness” was at first simply saving herself from that all-consuming hatred and bitterness. Today she is grateful that capital punishment was not imposed.

According to Azim Khamisa, whose son Tariq was shot dead by a 14-year-old boy, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die.” The author of the book From Murder to Forgiveness, Khamisa reached out to the shooter’s grandfather and together they founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, dedicated to stopping youth violence. He says, “Forgiveness is a gift I am giving myself.”

But if victims reach a place of peace for their own well being through forgiveness, Neale found while doing research and interviews that offenders were also deeply affected. Profound transformation can occur in the perpetrator when victim and offender meet in dialogue–something usually prevented under our adversarial legal system. Victims usually address perpetrators only at sentencing hearings when, still reeling with shock and loss, they may call the offender a monster and demand the most severe punishment. Defendants are told not to apologize to their victims and victims’ families. If they ignore their lawyers and try to plead guilty and accept responsibility, the judge may refuse to accept a guilty plea. Many prison officials refuse to allow victim-offender dialogue. (And even when they do, many stories don’t get told–including those that Neale had to leave out of the film when prison authorities did not allow access.) Upon release, ex-offenders are often prohibited under penalty of law from contacting their victims–a protection that may be essential in some cases but also prevents victims like the bank teller from finding relief.

from Unlikely Friends

Mark admits that when he shot Steve, he didn’t see him as a person but merely as an object standing in his way. Now he sees many prisoners who twist everything around so they can blame the victim for their circumstances. He cannot do that. Every time Mark sees Steve or hears from him, he can’t avoid facing the awful reality of the impact of his crime. If you never see the pain you’ve caused, he suspects you’ll never learn empathy.

And that affects everyone. Most incarcerated people are eventually released and if they return to society filled with resentment instead of insight, we’re all in trouble.
In Unlikely Friends, I saw a demanding kind of forgiveness: one that insists first on punishment according to the law but doesn’t stop there. It moves beyond the law to catalyze rigorous self-examination and moral growth on the part of those who’ve done wrong. If it’s love, it starts as tough love.

“Most offenders suffer from guilt,” says Khamisa, and as I watched Unlikely Friends, I thought about how easily a person can twist the facts and seek out someone else to blame when the burden of guilt is just too much to bear.

What I witnessed in the film was mutual recognition of shared humanity, a connection that may lead to forgiveness or friendship but is healing to both parties even if it doesn’t. Some offenders may be–at least for now–beyond reach. For many, I think the victim reminds the perpetrator of that all but unbearable guilt but by recognizing the offender’s humanity makes it possible to acknowledge the guilt and carry it.

Ideas planted by Unlikely Friends are still revolving in my mind. It occurs to me that when the perpetrator becomes human to me, I can’t hold the same volume of hatred inside me. Besides, I would rather accept that we live in a world in which we all experience pain and sorrow than believe we live in a world populated by monsters.

* * * * *
A special screening of Unlikely Friends on April 27 in Los Angeles will benefit the Amity Foundation. Among its many programs, Amity provides services to incarcerated men and women as well as men, women and families transitioning from residential treatment or incarceration to the greater community. Amity has used Neale’s earlier documentary, Juvies, about teens tried as adults, extensively in their educational programs. For tickets, please click here. (Incidentally, Juvies features the case of Duc Ta, the young man you’ve read about at this site. When he is released in August, he will go to transitional housing run by Amity.)

If you are interesting in hosting a community screening of Unlikely Friends, please request more information here.

You can also check the website for updates, to sign up for the newsletter to be informed about additional screenings, or to contact the filmmaker if you wish to order a copy.
To learn more about restorative justice around the world, please click here.

This article appeared in New Clear Vision on April 10 and in LA Progressive today, April 11.