SF Public Defender’s Office Launches College Pathway Project in Partnership with SF State and City College of SF

Program connects system-impacted clients with college opportunities through partnerships with local colleges

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

San Francisco, CA – On Wednesday, San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju announced a new community empowerment initiative, the College Pathway Project, which formalizes partnerships with San Francisco State University’s Project Rebound and City College of San Francisco’s New Directions programs, to make it easier for current and former Public Defender clients to attend college.

Raju explained that these partnerships are informed by overwhelming evidence of the benefits of higher education programs for system-involved individuals; programs like these are powerful tools for expanding job opportunities, keeping people out of the criminal system, and strengthening communities.

“We and our office, we’re about solution, evidence-based solutions to some of the most challenging problems in our society and our city face when it comes to solutions,” Raju explained.  “There’s really nothing more impactful than education. With education, people’s entire worlds change and this ripples out to uplift entire communities who see a college student or a college graduate and say, you know what, maybe I can do that too someday.”

“Public Defenders meet our clients when they are often at the most challenging point in their lives, and when the legal system is threatening their liberty and their future. Instead of criminalization, our clients deserve a chance to realize their potential,” he added.

Raju explained that while they had worked with programs like Project Rebound previously, they hope the formal partnership will bring closer collaboration between their office and these programs.

Raju said, “These services and programs that are going to be provided are extensive including academic counseling, financial aid, counseling, job placement, peer support, tutoring, you name it. But I think even more powerfully, these programs offer the formerly incarcerated a whole team of people who believe that they have the potential to not just stay out of the criminal legal system, but really to grow and to thrive. These programs like Public Defenders see our clients as individuals with enormous potential and with enormous gifts.”

Jason Bell

Jason Bell, who heads Project Rebound is himself system-impacted.

He explained that going into the system and accepting a life sentence as a 20-year=old was “scary.”

He said, “When I first came out of prison, I could only have wished for the level of support that Project Rebound provides.”

The problem, “Most college counselors aren’t used to working with people in prison and handling prison mail, or helping recently incarcerated students learn how to do things like online college applications. This is why our services are so critical and why this partnership is so important.”

In addition, the office is also formalizing a partnership with City College of San Francisco’s New Directions program, which has just received new grant funding from the state to expand its staff and program capacity.

Belinda Anderson is a former Public Defender’s office client and is working on getting a bachelor’s degree in communications after earning her associate’s degree in humanities while incarcerated.

Project Rebound was able to assist her in applying for resources online, buying books, navigating through campus, even escorting her to class on her first day.

“For me, Project Rebound represents hope. It’s an olive branch,” she said. “They extended their branch and opened their arms to me, and helped me in so many ways. They weren’t looking down their nose at you. My experience was wonderful.”

Heather Brandt is a system-impacted working student, parent and mother of three that is also serving as a student trustee on behalf of City College of San Francisco,

She explained that she has been at City College for quite some time, but got to work with incarcerated women and supported them as their pursued their GEDs.

Ten years later, “I was personally impacted by incarceration when my spouse became part of the opioid epidemic. After having been prescribed narcotic pain killers, my family, like countless others, experienced what it was like to have our whole lives live upside down and we watched him put in the work to turn it all around and we couldn’t be more proud.”

She said, “None of this would’ve been possible without family, friends and the community, including the City College of San Francisco. CCSF is one of those very communities that helps individuals that are facing challenges become more resilient through access to an education and supports, we create opportunity and build community.”

Curtis Penn, a graduate of the program, explained, “I first learned about Project Rebound when I was at San Quentin serving a life sentence under the California three strikes, all for second-grade commercial burglary. At the time, San Quentin had a two-year college program there and there was a legislation that was coming from Prop. 36 that required your second or third strike to be serious or violent.”

He explained, “I knew based on my past that I was eligible in the event that 36 would pass. And so I had reached out to Project Rebound Jason Dell while I was incarcerated to get information on Project Rebound.”

He paroled in April 2013.  He needed housing.

He reached out to Jason Bell, “and he welcomed me with open arms.”

He is currently the division director, where he provides oversight to a number of programs in different counties who have been able to hire Project Rebound Graduates.

Former Public Defender’s Office client Carmen Padilla participated in Project Rebound at CSU-Stanislaus and also worked as an assistant with the program.

This past spring, she earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a concentration in juvenile justice. This fall, she’ll be applying to programs to get a master’s in public administration.

“Project Rebound has been my foundation,” she said. “I want more people to know about Project Rebound and other programs like it, so that people know that there are opportunities for them to break the cycle of what they’re used to.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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