Guiding Ex-Offenders Back Into Society

* Community Programs Inc.

Incorporated: 1975; $140,000 annual budget.

Background: Employment, training and education couseling for ex-offenders and dislocated workers.

Address: 12900 Garden Grove Blvd., Suite 145, Calif., 92643. (714) 636-5052

The way Baltazar Perez sees it, if a community refuses to confront the needs of ex-offenders, it will probably be forced to confront them later through repeated crime and expensive jail time.

That is why Perez has spent more than 10 years at the helm of Community Programs Inc., an agency that tries to lead ex-offenders away from a life of crime by providing job training, counseling, emergency food, clothing, transportation and housing.

"Much of society feels ex-offenders should be behind bars and we should throw away the keys," said Perez, sitting in a small suite of offices that also function as a classroom and counseling center. "But they are out in the community, and either we are going to help them or they will go back to crime."

CPI, formerly Chicano Pintos Inc., was established in 1971 by a group of ex-offenders who found little help in their struggles to get back on their feet.

From its beginnings as a resource center that got by on money raised from carwashes and garage sales, it has grown into a federally funded, nonprofit agency that serves about 275 clients a year.

The agency has also expanded its core clientele to include dislocated workers who are not ex-offenders.

Perez said 85% to 90% of clients are successfully placed in jobs, many for employers that include Pacific Volt, Southern California Edison and the Marriott hotel chain.

Although CPI is one of the few agencies of its kind in Southern California, Perez says that ex-offenders are a hard sell for charity dollars.

"It's not like when I was at the Boys Club and people would call to ask how much we needed," he said. "These types of individuals are at the bottom of everybody's list."

While much of society would like to dismiss ex-offenders, Perez calls that attitude shortsighted and counterproductive.

He said the average ex-offender has spent about three to four years behind bars, most likely for a drug-related crime. Many ex-offenders lack a knowledge of the everyday aspects of life such as how to buy a shirt or write a check, he said. Ex-offenders average only a seventh-grade educational level, and most have few job skills. Yet, the average age of the ex-offender is only 25 years.

Perez says that with help, many ex-offenders can indeed change their lives. He cites one of his staff members, an ex-offender who was involved with drugs for 17 years. She used up her husband's $20,000 life insurance policy for her habit after he died of an overdose.

Perez says she was able to find help at the lowest point in her life and has worked for CPI for the past 10 years.

Perez says there could be more success stories but fears that funding cutbacks will hamper the efforts of his agency and others. CPI has had its funding cut nearly in half and has had to lay off five staff members.

"Unfortunately, community-based services are the first to go, yet we are the ones who most directly deal with the public day to day," he said.

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