When Michael Garror, 26, was laid off from the South Bay shipyards a couple years ago, the former Marine with electronics skills said he had no idea how to write a resume or get another job.
Before he figured it out, he “fell in with some people” who sold drugs, he said.
Fast forward to his release from prison this year. He’d done his time, but he still had no clue how to find a job.
This time, though, his probation officer made sure he fell in with the right people: a new nonprofit with a structured program to help people getting out of prison land steady work.
On Tuesday Garror was part of a crowd of former offenders and law enforcement officials, including District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Probation Chief Mack Jenkins, who celebrated the one-year anniversary of that nonprofit, the Center for Employment Opportunities, CEO, at its small downtown office.
Dumanis and Jenkins told the gathering that programs like CEO are essential partners in protecting public safety by helping former criminals make a successful transition back into society.
“A program like CEO is so important when we are going to have people getting out of prison – under realignment – with so many needs, like housing and jobs,” DA Dumanis said.
A little over a year ago, realignment, or Assembly Bill 109, shifted responsibility for thousands of people released from prison each year from State Parole to County Probation. It also required criminals sentenced for hundreds of felonies to serve their time in local jails instead of prison.
The landmark shift means the County and local police agencies must quickly expand or develop programs, partnerships and strategies to keep criminals from reoffending.
“If we don’t work together, we aren’t going to make sure the crime rate stays low and we aren’t going to make sure people coming out of prison turn their lives around,” Dumanis said.
Chief Jenkins said in its short time in operation, CEO has already helped employ several former state prisoners supervised by Probation—the department calls them “Post Release Offenders,” or “PROS,” to distinguish them from traditional probationers.
“One thing that came across to me with the people I talked to who had participated in this program was the pride on their faces,” Jenkins said.
The Probation Department starting referring offenders to CEO in May. Since then, seven PROs have found full time work, and 11, like Garror, are currently in the program.
Jenkins said Probation will place even more PROs in the program over the next year.
“Partners like CEO fill an important need for offenders we serve, so we’ll be working in the future to increase the capacity to serve even more people through the program.”
Including parolees, 150 people have gone through the program since it opened its doors in San Diego last year, and 55 have full time work today, CEO officials said.
Mindy Tarlow, the nonprofit’s executive director, said the New York-based program has a proven record in that state of helping former criminals live crime-free, productive lives.
When the nonprofit sought to expand last year, San Diego appealed for many reasons, Tarlow said. One was the County’s reputation for progressive leaders like Dumanis and Jenkins who recognize that helping criminals transition back into society is essential to public safety.
“We chose San Diego because of the large number of people under supervision and also because of the focus and commitment to re-entry by government leaders here,” Tarlow said.
CEO participants learn job searching, resume writing and interviewing skills. After they graduate from classroom instruction, they work at a transitional job site, where supervisors give them feedback and guidance to help ready them for independent work. Currently, the City of Chula Vista is the program’s transitional employer, and participants work under close supervision in various departments there.
CEO staff members also work one-on-one with participants to help them get interviews and land private sector jobs. Once employed, participants get a full year of support from staff to help them keep the jobs.
Garror, a father of two, said one of the advantages to working with CEO is staff members understand barriers people just of out of prison face. Community service requirements, appointments for mandatory drug tests and transportation challenges all make it hard to work a full-time job, he explained.
“People get frustrated and just give up, but (CEO staff) really works with you.”
Currently employed three days a week in Chula Vista’s parks and libraries, Garror said CEO job coaches help him search for a full time job two days a week.
Just as important, if he ever loses a job in the future, Garror said he’s at last learned how to find another job and stay employed.
“Even if something were to happen, I can do this on my own now.”