Zimmerman: The sheriff’s election—less crime with green jobs training
The side of a Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office vehicle is pictured in this file photo.

    Green jobs training for incarcerated individuals has the potential to reduce recidivism, offer people a way out of the justice system and provide employers with much-needed skilled workers. It is up to the new Santa Clara County sheriff, who will be elected in November, to take advantage of this opportunity.

    Green jobs can rehabilitate individuals and the environment

    Climate change has the potential to create millions of jobs for formerly incarcerated people. Members of law enforcement, particularly those dealing with incarceration, already know the United States has both an incarceration problem and a recidivism problem. On the national level, 40% of previously-incarcerated individuals return to prison within three years.

    However, inmates who receive vocational training while incarcerated are more likely to find work and have, on average, a 43% lower recidivism rate. A RAND study also found these programs are economical, with each $1 invested “reducing incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years post-release.”

    Justine Burt, project manager for Richmond Green-Blue New Deal Workforce Development, told me many justice-involved individual are eager to learn green skills. The key, she said, is to connect these individuals with the appropriate training and employer demand. She also emphasizes that many green jobs—such as those supporting building retrofits, re-wilding efforts, wetland restoration and building deconstruction—pay well and do not require advanced degrees, making them a good fit for these populations.

    The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office is ready for change

    I spoke to both candidates for Santa Clara County sheriff to get their perspectives. Robert “Bob’”Jonsen is the former Palo Alto police chief, and Kevin Jensen is a retired captain with the sheriff’s office.

    According to Jonsen, now is the time to focus on green training, “especially with the Inflation Reduction Act and the emphasis on solar energy.”

    “I want to put a system in place where people graduate out of incarceration, rather than just getting out after time served,” Jonsen said. “The majority of rehabilitation programs are still at the state level. We need to start bringing these programs to the county level because we know for certain that 100% of these justice-housed individuals are going to be released out of the county system.”

    Jonsen’s ambitions encompass more than just job training, and he reiterated the training done in the jail could contribute to the county’s goals for environmental conservation, homelessness reduction and more. His aspirations also extend to the institution of the jail itself. Santa Clara County is in the process of building a new jail.

    “I am a huge advocate for rethinking how we incarcerate and how we build these infrastructures,” Jonsen said. “Why not build these facilities so they are more conducive to the wellbeing of everyone involved: both those that work in those facilities and those that are housed in them.”

    Jensen, who is running for the same position, is a strong supporter of jobs training in general.

    “I am tired of sending people out there without jobs, so they lose their homes, they can’t pay their bills,” he said.

    Jensen, however, is more circumspect on the viability of green jobs training. For his part, he placed more of a burden on trades and NGOs, indicating these organizations would need to do their part in providing training and placement for formerly-incarcerated individuals.

    “I am all in, but I ask myself, what are the jobs that they are going to be going into?” Jensen said. “Yes, there is room for green, but that is also going to be dependent on the pendulum of where we go.”

    According to Jensen, who has highlighted his long-term relationships with trade unions in the area, “My idea is to partner with all of these trades, HVAC, every kind of construction job, but we also need to engage industry and say, ‘What are the green jobs that are out there?’ It’s usually just solar.”

    Providing green skills training to incarcerated individuals is a win-win proposition. It benefits the individuals, their families and dependents, the criminal justice system, and it also addresses some of the devastating impacts that both the climate crisis and mass incarceration have on racial justice.

    I encourage everyone to vote in the upcoming elections. Local elections matter, and good voter turnout is essential for democracy to thrive. You can find more information on how and where to vote at the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters.

    San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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