Mentoring program offers Kern County offenders a pathway away from jail

150 150 Nadine Ono

(Photo Credit: H. Michael Karshis/Flickr)

Faced with strained budgets and court-ordered caps on their jail population, many California counties are looking for ways to reduce recidivism rates. Each county is taking a different approach. For instance, El Dorado, Riverside and San Bernardino counties have partnered with CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative (J-SCI) to use data-driven evidence to lower incarceration rates, while maintaining public safety.

In Kern County, one of the ways the criminal justice system is trying to reduce offenders' rate of return to jail is to partner with community-based organizations (CBOs) which work with the formerly incarcerated. Garden Pathways, a nonprofit based in Bakersfield, is one of those CBOs that has partnered with several Kern County criminal justice agencies, including the Sheriff’s Department and the Probation Department.

The organization works with 350-400 formerly incarcerated individuals, offering mentoring services in an effort to transform their lives and permanently keep them out of jail.

“We’ve noticed that the majority of the individuals being released have experienced high levels of trauma in their lives that really impact their behaviors, their attitude and their social skills,” said Juan Avila, Garden Pathways’ director of operations.

And the organization's mentoring appears to be working. Between April 2013 and June 2015, Garden Pathways worked with 193 individuals and experienced a recidivism rate of 13.5 percent. That’s compared to the overall recidivism rate reported by the county of 60-75 percent.

Avila credits their efforts to change behaviors and recounts a story from one of their clients who walked away from a potentially violent situation, something he normally wouldn’t do. The client told Avila he realized escalating the violence would have landed him back in jail and it wasn’t worth losing his job, family and his freedom.

And that, Avila said, is their ultimate goal: “We really try to bring in a lot of these practices to help the individual change their frame of thought, which then impacts the way that they feel and impacts what they do.”

The journey from jail back into the community starts in custody, where Garden Pathways works with inmates before they are released. The goal is to develop a relationship with the inmates, learning their names and noting their interests. This creates trust between the inmate and the mentor so that when they are released, the clients will continue to use the process.

“We’ve developed re-entry mentoring services in response to AB 109 and the present realignment utilizing evidenced-based practices in mentoring and trauma-informed approaches in working with individuals that have experienced chronic trauma,” said Avila.

Upon release, the Sheriff’s Department will call Garden Pathways to pick up the individuals from the county jail and take them to their offices. There they will meet their professional mentor, who will also serve at their case manager. An assessment of their criminogenic needs, or risk of recidivating, will be performed to determine the level of programs needed to keep them out of jail. The higher the risk, the more engagement the individual will need.

The client and their case manager will develop a plan that includes group mentoring using cognitive behavioral interventions. Garden Pathways will then connect them with a community volunteer when they are ready.

“Throughout that process, there is still a lot of engagement with the professional mentor, again developing those trusts and modeling healthy behaviors, healthy attitudes, utilizing motivational interviewing and interactive journaling,” said Avila.

In addition, Garden Pathways provides employment strategies mentoring as well as job training through the Westside Energy Services Training and Education Center (WESTEC), where they can earn certificates to work in the oil, agriculture or logistics industries.

As other re-entry programs have shown, having access to a stable job is a large factor in helping prevent a return to jail. And programs like Garden Pathways are adding to the pool of data showing cost-effective and community-focused programs will enable California to transform its criminal justice system and bring more stability to its families and communities.


Nadine Ono

All stories by: Nadine Ono