Group founded by 'Hangover' producer aims to reform Sacramento's juvenile offenders

By Nashelly Chavez 


The Sacramento Bee

At the age of 11, West Sacramento native Michael Rizo first entered the juvenile justice system after he stole something from his neighbor’s yard. “I started messing up around elementary school, just started getting influenced by negative people,” Rizo said. In the years that followed, he moved in and out of foster care, often running away from home and living in abandoned houses. Rizo said he continued to act out as he got older, participating in gang activity and a string of robberies. 

By 17, a fight with a rival gang member landed him with a 3 1/2-year sentence in juvenile hall. His daughter was born shortly after he was arrested, he said. “I felt scared,” Rizo said. “I never had anybody to tell me that this would pass.” Rizo, now 20, was released from the state Division of Juvenile Justice’s Stockton facility a few months ago. On Friday night, he spoke to a crowd of about 100 people about his experience during the grand opening of the Sacramento chapter of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which supports formerly incarcerated youths as they re-enter society. The coalition, also known as ARC, was founded in 2013 by Scott Budnick, executive producer of “The Hangover” trilogy of raunchy comedy films. 

Budnick quit his successful Hollywood career to focus on prison reform, and his group now has roughly 340 members statewide. They all sign a pledge to avoid crime, drugs and gangs, and to enroll in school, look for work and serve the community. Based in Los Angeles, ARC primarily helps people ages 17 to 29. The main goal is to connect them with the resources and mentorship that will keep them from returning to jail, Budnick said. 

“When people have the right resources, and the right mentors around them who want to see them succeed, any of them can succeed,” Budnick said. Specific services that the organization provides include job and housing referrals; résumé and employment training; help with college enrollment, transfers and financial aid; and a mentorship program that links members with other people leaving incarceration. The coalition also works with young adults while they are still behind bars through policy workshops and rehabilitation programs. In their first year, the coalition’s leaders hope to recruit 50 members for the Sacramento chapter but expect to go over that count, Budnick said. 

So far, ARC has partnered with the Sacramento County Probation Department, which manages the county’s juvenile hall, and is also one of the program’s funders. Other funders include the California Endowment, which houses the Sacramento chapter in its downtown building, Sierra Health Foundation and Service Employees International Union, Budnick said. Lee Seale, chief probation officer for the Sacramento County Probation Department, said the partnership will target the population most likely to return to jail after being released. “We are taking kids that are at the greatest risk and putting them on the path to be successful,” Seale said. 

A report from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation last year showed that 44.6 percent of all offenders in the state released from jail in 2010 and 2011 returned to prison within three years. But when looking at recidivism within different age groups, the report showed that offenders ages 18 to 19 returned to jail within three years at a rate of 59 percent, the highest of any age group. Those in the 20-to-24 age group returned at a rate of 50.5 percent, just ahead of the 48.8 percent rate for those 25 to 29. 

Seale said research of adolescent brain development supports the theory that juveniles show a high risk of impulsive decision making and a lack of long-term thinking and internal regulation before reaching 26 years of age. Victor Malin, the Sacramento chapter’s lead coordinator, says poverty also motivates young people to commit crime. “They don’t want to take the steps to do work,” he said, adding that some young offenders come from homes where their parents cannot provide for them. “They want the money now; they want nice things now,” Malin said. 

A Del Paso Heights native and former inmate himself, Malin has worked closely with the Sacramento County Probation Department over the years, meeting face-to-face with juvenile offenders behind bars. He said that he hopes his work with ARC will help “create as many success stories” as possible. Despite several hurdles, success for young offenders is attainable when the right resources and support are available, Budnick said. According to the ARC website, the members have a recidivism rate of less than 5 percent. 

“The more unsaid part of the mission is changing the way that people think about people that have been formerly incarcerated,” Budnick said. “We haven’t been the best, not even this country, in forgiveness when someone has paid their debt.” 

Nashelly Chavez: 916-321-1188, @nashellytweets 

This story was originally published September 19, 2016 3:37 PM.