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Program rebuilds lives Allison K. Sampité-montecalvo | Sat, Jan 05 2013 12:00 PM

It’s a black “X” on their permanent record, which makes finding employment difficult.

Convicted criminals released from incarceration looking to begin a productive, healthy life often face a complicated process.

Lucky for them, the Center for Employment Opportunities was created to help men and women facing that reality get jobs through comprehensive employment services.

As California works to realign its corrections system, CEO San Diego is offering a solution to save taxpayer dollars and combat recidivism rates.

Headquartered in New York, the center opened a San Diego location in November 2011.

The center focuses on serving the most at-risk populations, ages 18 to 25, which face the strongest barriers to entering the workforce after incarceration.

Chula Vista resident Michael Garror is one of more than 50 individuals who, following his release, became eligible to enroll in the program and did so in June.

Garror, 26, said the program has enabled him to once again become a contributing member of society.

Upon being discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2006, he began making bad decisions while living in New York.

Garror was eventually arrested and convicted of possession for sale of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to 18 months in August 2011 at the RJ Donovan state correction facility, but only served eight months due to good behavior.

He later moved to Chula Vista where he currently lives with his girlfriend and two young boys.

Garror said prior to going to jail, his life was upside down.

“I was growing up still,” he said. “I didn’t understand how to use the resources around me to benefit me.”

When asked about reflection during his time in jail, Garror said it was a wake-up call.

“One day was enough time for me,” he said. “I never want to be in that type of position again.”

Garror said he’s now a changed man.

“There comes a time in everybody’s life where they decide ‘I want to do something better,’” he said. “It’s very important for me to provide for my family.”

Garror said the program taught him how to ask the right questions and make better decisions.

“I’ve grown a lot,” he said. “The decisions and stuff I would have made … I don’t do now. Nowadays I take things that may get me down and I use them in positive manners.”

Garror now describes himself as someone who takes initiative, is responsible, tactful, punctual and diligent.

As far as work, he’s looking into vocational training as an electrician.

CEO staff works with participants for up to six months, one on one, five days a week, including 70 working days.

For two days they work with a job coach on interview tactics, while the other three days are a transitional job opportunity where participants work within the county and at the end of each day receive a paycheck.

Garror said the experience has humbled him.

“It’s an honor to be here and I’m very grateful and thankful for the position I’m in right now,” he said.

Center Executive Director Mindy Tarlow said addressing convicted criminals at their most vulnerable point when they are first released from incarceration or soon thereafter is key to reducing recidivism.

“The point is to engage people at the right time and to give them paid, peer-supported work as quickly as possible, so they can earn while they learn,” Tarlow said.

In addition, the center relies on other agencies for help.

“Most people have multiple needs,” she said. “In part we’re relying on our partners with probation and parole… We work with our criminal justice colleagues to make sure they’re enrolled in the right programs.”

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who is known for putting criminals behind bars, is one of a few people behind the program, saying it reduces recidivism rates, increases public safety and decreases tax dollars spent on incarceration.

In addition, San Diego County Probation Chief Mack Jenkins, who leads the county’s probation department, said the program helps offender rehabilitation and empowers probation officers.

“We are teaching probation officers … to employ case management techniques so they can be about behavior change,” Jenkins said at the one-year anniversary event for CEO San Diego in December.

The center also partners with the city of Chula Vista through Public Works Director Rick Hopkins.

“We (city staff) and CEO jointly made a presentation to council during budget discussions this past summer highlighting some of the projects CEO has completed since they started working with us,” he said. “It provides an avenue for people who have served their time to work their way back into the workforce.”

The participants work on projects that the city needs to catch up on such as landscaping and maintenance at parks and open spaces, clearing overgrown greenery, picking up trash and making repairs.

“It’s those kinds of projects that a group could come in and in one day complete that we would normally couldn’t get to,” Hopkins said.

The city of Chula Vista was the first to participate in the program on the West Coast, according to Hopkins.

Since last November, the center has placed more than 50 high-risk individuals with limited work histories into stable, full-time jobs.

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