Marin City program lightens criminal justice workload

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Joshua Garrard of Marin City was robbed when he was 18 and served three years in state prison, but returned to his hometown with the constant ambition of securing full custody of his daughter.

He needed help, so he turned to a community resource and rehabilitation program called the Phoenix Project.

“It was like an uphill battle,” said Garrard, now 31. “I had to fight really hard for that.”

Project Phoenix, launched in 2009 to target ‘at risk’ youth and young adults in Marin City for rehabilitation and renewal through mentorship and lifelong learning services, celebrates yet another milestone. Another highlight as he saw a drastic decrease in the number of adults in Marin City. and minors in the criminal justice system.

The number of adults in Marin City on supervised probation has risen from a peak of 140 in 2011 to 24 in 2020, according to a new report prepared by the New York-based nonprofit Catchafire, which associates professionals interested in donating their time to non-profit organizations in need. In addition, referrals of minors to the Marin City Probation Department fell from 85 in 2010 to four in 2020, according to the report.

Marlon Washington, head of the Marin County Probation Department, who has headed the department since 2020, said Marin City “supports the drive for this change.

“They are taking a stand to make things better,” he said. “They don’t just talk about it, they do it.”

The project is funded by the founder and executive director of Felecia Gaston’s nonprofit, Performing Stars of Marin, which offers enrichment plans for low-income children and families.

“I think the way she works in conjunction with all of our criminal justice departments and partners makes her a major component in the success of reducing crime rates in the region,” Washington said. “She is that maternal figure. She does more than be a director. She is involved and people know her. When people talk about Marin City, they know Felecia.

Participants are offered a case manager who can refer them to vocational training or rehabilitation. This could be filling out court papers, helping someone with a job application, or driving them to the DMV to get their driver’s license.

For Gaston, it is about finding the “key people” who can change their lives.

“You have to make it accessible and easy,” said Founder and CEO Felecia Gaston. “It’s almost like holding hands. It’s like you have your own child and they are crying for help and we have come to help them and now we are seeing the changes they have made in their lives.

Gaston said Marin City is an outlier compared to the wealth of the surrounding county, but has shown remarkable resilience in the face of systemic racial injustices, historic red lines, and struggles against poverty, consumerism. drug and crime. Gaston describes Project Phoenix as a public-private partnership, integrating the resources of the county’s housing, criminal justice and philanthropy agencies with private donors who have been inspired by his uplifting work.

The effort served more than 300 men and 75 women in Marin City and elsewhere in southern Marin.

“Each case is very different,” Gaston said. “Some of them, we have to be hardcore with them. But we’re here to say that we believe in you, take care of you, and we’ll help you be successful.

The first step for Garrard was to find a job, which he landed at Goodman Building Supply as a painting associate. He was released from parole under supervision in 2014 and has focused on finding stable accommodation.

Three months ago, he found a place of his own in Novato. And right after that, he finally got full custody of his 12-year-old daughter. He is now employed as a contractor and works in Marin City.

“Finding a job really helped me stay a bit further off the streets. I realized that hanging out all day was a potential disaster, ”he said. “Felecia is a real inspiration. I see she has a lot of backing and a strong voice. Lots of people in my situation, we couldn’t get by without her.

Project Phoenix was founded with a focus on black men, Gaston said, and was a response to an explosion in crime in Marin City around 2009.

“For me that was such a burning question,” she said. “It paints a really negative image of a community with a lot of great people. We wanted to get together and find out what is going on in the lives of these young black men.

Participants have a variety of reasons for seeking help from Project Phoenix. Direct money – typically less than $ 100 and most often related to transportation, clothing, or employment – accounted for about 22% of visits between July 2018 and June 2020. child care.

Federico Cortez, 29, who moved from Antioch to Marin City with his mother when he was around 14, said Project Phoenix gave him stability and employment after spending more than four years in supervised probation.

Federico Cortez is working as an administrative assistant in the Performing Stars of Marin offices in Marin City on Friday, January 7, 2022 (Alan Dep / Marin Independent Journal)

Cortez, who is gay and Hispanic, threatened someone with a rock in the backyard of Golden Gate Village when he was 20 after the person hurled homophobic slurs at him. Patrol officers arrested Cortez and he spent a month in the Marin County jail.

“I never had any trouble until I came here so I went into this without knowing what to expect. As soon as I got on a leash it just got really tough for me. me, ”Cortez said.

Cortez didn’t have a car, so Project Phoenix helped him get his driver’s license. He used their internet connection to apply for a new Social Security card and keep in touch with his probation officer.

“It’s unlimited access to everything you need. When we come from broken homes, we don’t have cellphones or Wi-Fi half the time, ”he said.

Cortez still works as an administrative assistant for Performing Stars of Marin. He also operates a dog grooming business called Benny and Suki’s in San Francisco with his partner.

Another of the main goals of Project Phoenix is ​​to reduce institutional barriers for low-level offenders, such as fines or non-violent criminal charges that prevent them from obtaining employment or housing.

Marin County Superior Court Judge Beverly Wood started Community Court, a diversion program for low-level offenders, about 11 years ago. The program allows petitioners to pay unpaid fees and fines and recover their licenses, which supports their employment goals.

The program has become one of the critical outlets of change for users of Project Phoenix. Project Phoenix’s partnership with Legal Aid of Marin has served 88 people over the past two years, eliminating $ 57,884 in tickets and clearing violations, allowing residents to continue driving and working.

“We are finding that people affiliated with Project Phoenix are much more successful in completing their community court because of this guidance and support,” said Wood. “I think there has been a real movement over the years towards prevention, to get in there and identify and work with young people before they are entrenched in the criminal justice system.

Kat Taylor, philanthropist and Performing Stars of Marin donor, said she met Gaston over a decade ago because their sons were attending the same college. Since then, Taylor has had “amazing experiences with young people in the organization,” such as accompanying a delegation of young people to Montgomery, Alabama.

“I am dedicated to communities that have suffered a lot of harm and oppression, so I have some great ideas on how we can move forward,” Taylor said. “It has been very important for Marin City as well as for the leaders of this country to support the development of local leadership among young people. “

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