OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Program coordinators for restorative justice initiatives in the East Bay say they're working to stop recidivism. ABC7 News I-Team reporter Melanie Woodrow has an in-depth look at the two programs.
The Oakland garden where Sol Mercado works is worlds away from prison.
"We're here in planting justice," said Mercado.
"Everything grows organic, "she continued while taking ABC7 on a tour.
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"There's like a lot of different, good programs going on," said Mercado, who began working at the garden in 2020.
"Like what I really wanted to do was come home and have a different life," she continued.
When she was barely 19, Mercado says she went to prison for shooting and killing another known gang member.
"I had no right to take his life," said Mercado.
She served 16 years and says she had the job lined up before she even got out.
"It's helping me to be able to take care of my daughter because I'm a single mother, I have a 1-year-old baby," said Mercado.
In addition to her salary, Mercado receives a $1,000 monthly guaranteed income through Oakland's Community Works Restorative Reentry Fund which is funded privately, not with taxpayer dollars.
"It's been helping me to have a productive life out here and not have to go back and be like oh I need to commit a crime in order to be able to sustain myself you know because that will lead me right back to prison and that's one thing I never want to do," said Mercado.
Restorative Reentry Program Manager Rahkii Holman says the program is in its third year.
"What's the goal here? What's the hope here?" asked Woodrow.
"You know humanity, that's the first thing that comes to mind for me. Letting folks know that they're cared for," said Holman
"This money is meant to aid folks on whatever journey they're on," he continued.
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Participants receive $1,000 for 12 months and then $500 a month for six months. Holman says participants who fill out a monthly survey can receive an additional $40 a month.
"It shows community support that we welcome you, we see the greatness in you and we want to help you strive for that," said Restorative Reentry Fund recipient Shakur Ross.
Ross served 36.5 years in prison. He was released last year. At 19 he says he shot and killed a man, which he says resulted in the retaliatory deaths of his mother and little brother.
"I'm 100% positive that I will never commit another crime, you want to know why? Because I'm aware of the hurt and the harm that I caused and I never want to cause that hurt and harm again," said Ross.
Research shows that restorative justice reduces recidivism and the likelihood that someone will commit another crime, but Holman understands there are no guarantees.
"There are no strings attached. Meaning you're not mandated to do anything to receive this money. Even if you fall out of contact with us you're still going to receive the money," said Holman.
"Some people would say that makes them uncomfortable. How do you know if somebody falls out of contact whether or not they're back in a life of crime?" asked Woodrow.
"You don't, you don't," said Holman.
"Since 2020 to your knowledge, has anybody who received this money committed a crime?" asked Woodrow.
Holman says maybe two or three people out of 60 and describes them as minor offenses.
"People are going to do what they're going to do with or without guaranteed income," said Holman.
In nearby Richmond, another restorative justice program is in its 13th year.
The Peacemaker Fellowship is for active firearm offenders who haven't been prosecuted. Advance Peace CEO DeVone Boggan says participants can earn an allowance of up to $1,000 a month for meeting certain life map milestones.
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The program is funded by philanthropy and taxpayer dollars. In 2022, it had fellows enrolled in eight cities nationwide.
"Within 24 months we're seeing 20% reductions in every one of the cities that we're in," said Boggan.
He's referring to reductions in gun violence.
But the fellowship program is not without criticism. In 2016, fellow Dewaun Rice was accused of shooting and killing two people within three days of one another. In 2019 he was sentenced to 40 years to life. Yolanda Ficklin-Prothro's son Javonte was one of the victims. Woodrow spoke with her and her family in 2016.
"You didn't take their guns. You were giving them money to buy more guns to me that's what the payment was," said Ficklin-Prothro.
"There's no program in this world that can pay a criminal any money to tell me that they're changing the streets and you see where we're standing today," said Jairell Prothro.
According to field outreach worker reports analyzed by U.C. Berkeley researchers, of the 231 fellows enrolled nationwide in the Peacemaker Fellowship in 2022, 31 or 13.4% were arrested on new gun crimes since becoming a fellow. Boggan says their cases are pending.
"It's success in the sense that we have been able to significantly slow things down," said Boggan.
"This is something that people of color in communities of color deserve and for anybody that doesn't get that too bad, too bad," he continued.
"Would you say too bad to Javonte's mother?" Woodrow asked.
"I would not say too bad to Javonte's mother, I get it. I get it personally but I wish the killer of my brother had had access to what we do," Boggan answered.
"These guys don't have to buy guns, they have guns," he continued.
Back in Oakland, Ross understands the pain victims' family members feel. The grandson of the man he shot and killed contacted him on Facebook.
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"It left my mom with hella emotional damage, she hasn't had her father since she was 11 months because of a mistake you made and his four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren will never meet him," said Ross while reading the message he received.
"And I responded, yeah, I feel horrible about that and I wish I could go back and change that but I can't. All I can do is honor your mother and grandfather by being a better person today and being in service to make a difference in the lives of others so that they don't go down the path I did as a teenager," said Ross while reading the response he sent.
Ross apology continued. He says he didn't receive a response.
"You know I believe everybody deserves a second chance," said Mercado.
"People are capable of growing, people are capable of you know like, never looking back," she continued.
It's for that reason that Mercado says she believes in restorative justice.
"There should be more programs that help us get on our feet, more opportunities to have jobs, more opportunities to have housing," said Mercado.
"Wouldn't you want us to give folks who are trying their damnedest, who are actually examples of what our people are capable of when given opportunities, wouldn't you want to see them thrive? Wouldn't you want to help boost them up, prop them up any way you can, help change the narrative of how we're seen sometimes in this country," said Holman.
Mercado says she's still writing her story.
"There's so much more that I could do, you know?" said Mercado.
Holman tells ABC7 News the Community Works Restorative Reentry Fund program has made one change since beginning in 2020. It no longer gives guaranteed income to people with known substance abuse issues, saying they recognize addiction is a disorder.
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