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Navigating the Criminal Justice System During a Pandemic

With the arrival of spring and warm weather, there is a feeling that we are now turning a corner on the pandemic. Many have spent the last month reflecting back on how wildly their lives have changed in the last year. It was just over a year ago that the pandemic truly took hold in local communities– Schools shut down, businesses began to shutter, and vital services came to a halt. 

 While community programs were put on hold over the past year, two of our programs at the Volunteer Center, Friends Outside and the Court Community Service Program managed to keep their doors open during the entirety of these chaotic times. As restorative justice programs meeting the needs of men and women either facing incarceration or coming out of incarceration– family connections, livelihoods, personal safety, and autonomy were at stake. 

 “Shutting down was not an option. Despite the pandemic, the criminal justice system would still need to carry on and our programs play a crucial role in helping people navigate that system,” states Crystal Perez Division Manager for the Volunteer Center Restorative Justice Programs. 

At the outset of the shelter in place orders last year, Perez and her restorative justice teams set to work to maintain their scope of services for both programs. 

As Friends Outside supports those incarcerated, their family members, and those recently released by providing in-custody supportive education classes and facilitating post-release plans, Perez took several key actions to ensure that relationships and access to the jails would not lapse. These steps included quickly shifting in-custody classes to independent studies and eventually setting up the foundation for live virtual classes. Friends Outside staff redesigned their curriculum to establish an independent studies workbook for those participants hoping to continue programming while in custody.  Finally, while in person drop-in services were curtailed during the shelter in place, the team used their office hours to make emergency hygiene kits and distributed these along with new clothing to participants as they were released from custody.

“We work closely with community partners to provide a continuum of services from custody to community re-entry. Our services are open to anyone who has been in jail or prison within the past 6 months from the date of intake, or who has a referral from Probation and we did everything within our reach to ensure that these supports continued,” states Perez. 

Now that the community has moved into the next phase of re-opening, Friends Outside staff have been able to establish an agreement with the Santa Cruz Probation Center to once again provide in-person classes at the Center and in-person group workbook classes for South County Monolingual Spanish speakers have been re-established as well. 

Likewise, within the Volunteer Center’s other Restorative Justice Program known as the Court Community Service Program (CCSP), Perez worked with staff to address covid concerns and shift programming to ensure that community members could still complete their court referred hours. The Court Community Service Program assists people referred by the court system to complete community service hours instead of fines or jail time. It is a way to provide a path to equal justice for low income people.  

“People find themselves in the court system for all kinds of reasons. If a person has a desire to rectify his or her situation and move towards a more productive life, we want to be there to immediately support that individual. This looks different for each person. Some folks may be trying to clear multiple cases so it is important that there is not a lapse in support. While the last year presented many bumps in the road, our team has grown quite adept at tailoring our support to ensure each person can thrive,” states Perez. 

“We connect with every registered participant to discuss their skills and interests so that they can make the most of their volunteer experience. Our goal is not only to help them clear their court case but also to provide them with the tools and information to find a volunteer opportunity that feels meaningful,” continues Perez. 

The team quickly adapted  their volunteer referral focus to match participants with critical community needs. Many program participants were given the opportunity to assist the County of Santa Cruz at Covid and CZU fire shelters as well as at the CZU donation centers. CCSP participants donated hundreds of hours to organizing donations and many chose to give their time over and above their court issued hours.  

“Participants felt great empathy for the experiences of their fellow community members and jumped at the opportunity to help as they too had lost loved ones, homes, jobs, or time in school due the pandemic and the fires,” states Perez.   

With health and safety as a key priority,  the CCSP team had to occasionally get creative in finding pandemic friendly volunteer opportunities. Participants helped with a range of tasks over the last year including making masks for essential workers and designing greeting cards for isolated seniors living in assisted living facilities. 

card making MLK Day“The masks and card making proved to be a fun and creative way for participants to give back and many participants expressed how much they enjoyed these tasks,” states Perez. 

In total, over the last year their staff team of 3 worked with 217 adults and 202 juveniles helping them to clear their cases and move forward with their lives. Since the Court Community Service Program became part of the Volunteer Center 3 years ago more than 2,370 cases have been cleared. Through these cases individuals have contributed over 52,000 hours of service to the community generating 1.5 millions dollars worth of service. 

 “The move to the Volunteer Center was transformative and a complete shift in mindset about what we were attempting to achieve through the program. Our focus moved from one of remediation to one of connection– helping people find the right mechanisms for improving their lives. With this shift we have seen a huge uptick in the number of completed cases,” states Perez.  

The Restorative Justice team launched into 2021, showing no signs of slowing down. Most recently, CCSP  partnered with the Downtown Streets Team to provide job and life skills for participants in combination with addressing  their barriers for housing in Santa Cruz County.  

“These participants are unhoused and facing immense day to day challenges. Yet they find the strength to work off Court referred hours that eventually lead to successful case closures and elimination of court fines,” states Perez.   

Another avenue CCSP has begun to take a deeper dive into is pre-trial cases. The team at CCSP is working alongside the courts to connect with community members who elect at the recommendation of their attorney to begin community service prior to their court case. 

“Our hope is that the County of Santa Cruz will establish CCSP as a permanent partner program in Santa Cruz County. It is an excellent testament to how we can build the common good through collaboration.  We acknowledge this program is only possible because of the daily efforts of the network involved.  This includes but is not limited to participants, staff, courts, and community agencies. Together we all benefit from this successful and transformative program,” states Perez. 

Learn More About Friends Outside

Learn More About Court Community Service