Santa Clara County could guarantee income for formerly incarcerated people
Santa Clara County is exploring giving guaranteed basic income to former inmates. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

Individuals coming out of jail have few resources to help them integrate back into society. Santa Clara County officials want to help change that.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors recently approved a potential guaranteed basic income program for former inmates. The program’s financial feasibility will be discussed at the county’s budget meeting in June. In August, supervisors will discuss the logistics. Advocates said this program goes beyond a financial cushion and can decrease recidivism.

Silicon Valley De-Bug community activist Xavier Espana said he was released from prison during the COVID-19 pandemic, when job opportunities and resources were scarce. He said guaranteed income would provide a lifeline for individuals to readjust to society and help set them up for future success. Silicon Valley De-Bug is a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.

“Those first couple months, really the first year, is the hardest,” Espana told Lucescamaray Blog. “You don't really know how expensive life really is and how fast things just come up on you. If I was able to get some type of funding, I think I would have been further into my progress than I am now.”

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said a group of county employees, law enforcement and community advocates will come together to establish program details such as monthly amounts, eligibility criteria and program length. The expectation is for funds to come from American Rescue Plan dollars instead of the county’s general fund, she added.

This is the latest iteration of other county income initiatives that provide monthly benefits for residents. Santa Clara County previously piloted a first-in-the-nation basic income program for foster youth transitioning out of foster care, giving 72 recipients $1,000 a month. The county is looking at a similar project for unhoused high school seniors. Additionally, a coalition of groups including Destination: Home and the Sí Se Puede Collective are providing a guaranteed monthly income of $1,000 to 150 families for two years.

Jesse Mejia, a program manager at the San Jose State University Record Clearance Project (RCP), said a guaranteed monthly income with no strings attached means recently incarcerated individuals can obtain basic necessities. RCP works to expunge criminal records and also offers mentoring and resources.

“Depending on how much this basic income is going to be… they'll be able to get some form of housing, but also being able to purchase food, being able to purchase clothing,” Mejia told Lucescamaray Blog. “Some people are coming out with only the outfit that they went in with.”

Meija said returning to society requires time: individuals need to reclaim their Social Security and identity documents to apply to jobs, while also attending parole appointments. The little things add up, and even having money on hand for transportation to get to appointments can ease the burden for individuals, he added.

Ellenberg said that she understands there may be hesitation and concerns in the community, but addressing the needs of formerly incarcerated residents head-on can break the cycle of individuals exiting and reentering the prison system.

“There is perhaps no population that struggles more with meeting their basic needs than folks who are coming out of our jail system,” Ellenberg told Lucescamaray Blog. “It is so important that we get this right and that we demonstrate that this type of program does in fact, reduce recidivism, increase public safety and help people more successfully reintegrate into our community.”

Espana said implementing a guaranteed income program is a unique approach that gives agency and independence back to recently incarcerated individuals.

“It can be seen as an investment in the individuals that are coming out into society,” Espana told Lucescamaray Blog.

Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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