When individuals are released from jail and prison they have a chance for a new start. But often the actions and life experiences that landed them in custody continue to hamper them as free individuals. A criminal record makes seeking employment, education, housing and other necessities of life a tremendous struggle, often leading to re-incarceration.
But what if those life experiences that initially led to incarceration were now viewed as assets? What if through healing and educating themselves about addiction and trauma individuals with criminal records became the most qualified people to help others with similar experiences?
The County of Santa Clara’s Office of Reentry Services (ORS) and San Jose City College (SJCC) are investing in these individuals as peer mentors, calling on their insights and desire to give back to their community as one of our best tools for breaking the cycle of incarceration. ORS and SJCC have partnered to provide a free Criminal Justice Peer Mentor Certification Program for reentry clients at the San Jose Reentry Resource Center. Students complete four college-credit courses in alcohol and drug counseling taught by a San Jose City College instructor. These classes prepare individuals reentering community from jail or prison for further course work toward becoming Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselors.
“As our County moves in the direction of treatment for those in our jails and prisons with substance-use disorders and away from straight incarceration, there is a growing need for qualified people to fill a vast array of jobs in the treatment and recovery realm,” said County of Santa Clara Board Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, Chair of the County’s Public Safety and Justice Committee.
Peer mentors can play a pivotal role in the treatment process by attending appointments with clients, which sometimes can feel overwhelming to them, and helping counselors with more effective ideas for working with each individual. Peer mentors can often establish a deeper level of trust with clients because they can relate to the emotions and challenges the client may be facing.
“The demand for drug and alcohol counselors is growing and peer mentors can be crucial resources, helping clients feel supported and safe enough to seek help,” said Javier Aguirre, Director, County of Santa Clara Office of Reentry Services. “Without this kind of support, clients may forego treatment because they don’t trust the system or can’t see its value.”
Many of the students who complete the program obtain jobs and volunteer work in the field of drug and alcohol recovery in the community.
“When I started going to class at the Reentry Center, I felt like I belonged there. I felt like I fit in. I was excited to go to class because I knew there were people there I could relate to,” said Lerissa Sabala Evans, from the 2018/2019 Peer Mentor Certification Program class at the Reentry Center. Lerissa completed the Program and now works at the Pathway Society, which offers substance abuse treatment services, and is in her second year at San Jose City College working towards her Certified Drug and Alcohol Counseling Certificate as well as an AA degree in Alcohol and Drug Studies.
“A large percentage of individuals leaving jail or prison struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. Our criminal justice system is expanding its ability to address addictions rather than simply incarcerating individuals,” said County Chief Operating Officer Miguel Marquez.
“Having an opportunity to turn negative experiences into positive ones is encouraging change for a better future, said Michael Wright, a student who completed the program in 2018. “Thank you for this opportunity.”
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