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Local program helping to bring hope to probationers, inmates

April 24, 2019 GMT

SCOTTSBLUFF — Lisa Guerrero had spent about 10 years working as a corrections officer. It was a job she took pride in doing. She was used to the ins and outs of the job.

And then Guerrero found herself on the other side of the law after a confrontation with another man — convicted of attempted terroristic threats, a Class IV felony — and she was sentenced to a year in probation.

“At first, when it all happened, (her arrest and conviction), I felt a great deal of hopelessness — what am I going to do with my life because now I have this felony on my record? There is a study out there that says there are 48,000 collateral consequences (of being convicted of a felony). How am I going to find my way back to being a productive citizen again?”

She said she felt depression, guilt and shame and she would find the same hopelessness and fears among other people in similar situations.

While on probation, Guerrero heard about Second Chance Month, which is observed during the month of April, after reading an article about proclamations from President Donald Trump and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. The month focuses on redemption for people who have been convicted of crimes, drawing attention to the challenges people often encounter as they seek to get jobs and housing, or even rebuild relationships with family members.

“I thought it would be cool to see if there was anything like that going on in this area,” Guerrero said, saying she wanted to turn things around. “No one I talked to had even heard of this. I thought it might be cool to be a part of this movement, somehow, some way.”

Through her interest, Guerrero has formed the Second Chance Coalition of Western Nebraska. Guerrero made contact with Sandra Raney, a counselor with Open Door Counseling, and Stephanie Skinner, District 12 probation officer, to highlight Second Chance Month in the community this year.

Skinner and Raney have seen the struggles among the clients that they work with every day. Raney and Skinner work together to provide counseling and classes for probationers on restorative justice — which focuses on rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. Anger management, parenting, life skills and other classes are provided to help probationers or inmates re-entering the community and make positive changes in their lives, with the aim of reducing recidivism.

“Those who make positive changes in their lives don’t usually re-offend,” Skinner, who heads a program called “Embracing Change” at the probation center, said. Guerrero has spoken to women in the program, Skinner said, explaining her own journey through probation and that “once you do change, it can be better.”

That’s also part of the goal of the National Second Chance Month observations.

As part of the activities, Jim Jones, who serves as executive director of the Community Justice Center (CJC), a non-traditional restorative justice and public safety organization, will speak with inmates at the Scotts Bluff County Detention Center and also during an event at the Midwest Theater.

Jones will share his own story of addiction, crime, incarceration and his successful re-entry into his community. In October 1989, Jones was arrested for robbery and served a three- to five-year sentence in a Nebraska state prison. After he was released, he enrolled in college and earned degrees in drug and alcohol counseling and youth specialization. After working with the Lincoln Action Program with President Bill Clinton’s National Service Corporation, Jones was taught about an existing restorative justice prison program, which led him to create his own unique restorative justice program that focused on bringing together juvenile offenders and other youth with victims of crime and businesses. Offenders would hear directly from victims about how crime negatively impacted their lives, with the goal of helping develop emotional awareness among the offenders about the impact of their crimes.

The community has a role in helping people who have committed crimes, Raney said.

“As a general public, we have a responsibility after the probationers have done their bit with the victim and with the community (in serving a sentence or making other reparations), the community is equally responsible to accept them as productive members of society,” Raney said.

Many people may have hard times finding jobs or housing, solely based on having a criminal record. Raney said, “And I get that we have some people who burn those bridges, but we have a lot of them, like Lori, that have made those changes in their lives. We as a community have a responsibility to accept these people so they can be productive members of the community.”

Second Chance Month aims to educate the public about the role it can play in helping people through support and resources.

Through her partnerships, Guerrero said she has found that there are people out there who offer hope and are willing to help people navigate “through this mess that we have put ourselves in. We can go after a life that we still deserve.”

As hard as her own situation has been, Guerrero says it has been a great catalyst for self-improvement and a blessing in disguise. She has found a passion to push forward in her life.

“The world of opportunities is right there as long as I’m willing to believe in myself and willing to do the inner work.”

She hopes others will hear her message, and that of Jones during activities this week.

Activities will start with a Community Prayer Walk, which will be held on April 25 at 7 p.m., beginning at the Northfield Church to the Scotts Bluff County Courthouse.Jones will speak from 1-3 p.m. to the Scotts Bluff County Detention Center inmates.

He will then speak to the community during a film review and panel discussion at the Midwest Theater Friday from 7:30-9:30 p.m. Other speakers will include Guerrero, Dennis Aveila, of H.E.A.T. Inc., and Derreck Sonnenfelt, ResCare ReEntry supervisor.

The film and panel are open to the community and free of charge.

Anyone interested in being involved in restorative justice programs or the classes offered by the probation center, some of which are open to the public, can contact Raney at 308-225-4335.