Just three years ago, Clarence Ford was a 23-year-old ex-robber from Richmond with a bleak looking future. He leads a different life now, and the future for him and his community looks brighter.

Ford not only has a paying job, he has a place on a Contra Costa County board, advising officials on how best to deal with a big, timely concern for communities of color: helping men and women succeed when they're released from prison.

We know that more than 1,700 people who called Richmond home in 2010 were on felony parole. Nearly 70 percent of these ex-offenders had been in and out of prison several times. Two-thirds of them were back behind bars within three years of release.

That's an expensive, failed cycle that the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and its partners want to break. Because when men and women like Clarence Ford get back on their feet, so do their neighborhoods.

At LISC, we know from three decades of Bay Area work that arresting and imprisoning people time and again doesn't help communities prosper. They thrive when streetlights get fixed, when vacant lots become parks, when housing is available, when public buses run nearby, and when the trash gets picked up on time. Neighborhoods, in other words, succeed when there are basic services and when people feel secure.

That sense of security can vanish when ex-offenders, returning home in increasing numbers, can't find jobs, schooling or the legal, housing and other services they need to get back on track.


Advertisement

As Ford found out, enrolling in classes didn't do much good if employers trashed his job applications the minute he checked a box saying he was an ex-felon.

Paying for books and tuition -- even finding a place to live -- is a never-ending struggle for those with a record.

Ford didn't turn his life around by himself. He, like all of us, is part of a community. It took concerted effort by forward-thinking citizens and community groups who realized helping ex-offenders helps us all.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently balanced California's budget for the first time in years in part by asking why we spend billions of dollars on prisons, more than we do on education. His "realignment" plan offered counties financial help to break a costly cycle by moving the low-level offenders out of state prisons into local jails or community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Contra Costa County is now investing millions of that state "realignment" money into community-based programs to help ex-offenders like Clarence Ford reintegrate and to help reduce recidivism. That's also a major investment in our neighborhoods.

We know well that these programs won't work for some. But when we give up on the many who can be helped, we punish whole communities as much as individual criminals by pushing former-offenders without jobs, education or hope onto the streets.

LISC and the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services are proud to have helped launch Contra Costa on a better way forward, with our partners providing path-breaking efforts to help once-jailed people like Clarence Ford.

Now business, law enforcement and political leaders, as well as all the rest of us, must support even more programs that work, so Contra Costa can be a California model in rebuilding lives and neighborhoods.

Gee is deputy director of Bay Area LISC. She also has served as assistant director for East Bay Asian Local Development Corp. and managing director for Chinatown Community Development Center.