By Nadine Ono.
On most days, social service worker Lita Meza can be found in her Toyota Prius transporting her clients from Riverside County’s jails to outside rehabilitation programs all over Southern California. For 16 years, she has been the force behind the Alternative Sentencing Program run out of the Riverside County Public Defender’s Office.
“Lita changes lives every day,” said Riverside County Public Defender Steve Harmon. “I would go further and say Lita saves lives every day. She takes people who would still be in jail and who would, when they get out, never make it to a program. She gets them to a program.”
Meza is a one-person team who takes client referrals only from attorneys in the Public Defender’s office. The clients at that point have been charged, but not officially sentenced. If the clients are accepted into a program, their participation becomes part of the sentencing.
Once Meza has vetted the client, she seeks out the appropriate program, keeps in contact with the county’s Sheriff’s and Probation departments or the state parole office and transports the clients directly to the programs regardless of location.
“Once the client does connect with me and I do connect them with a program, I send an email to the attorney and the attorney then will have the client released for the specific date that I set up,” explained Meza. “Once that client has been set up, on the day of their release, I call the jail in the morning and I go over once they say that they’re ready and their file is ready.”
She works with many organizations across Southern California including the Inland Empire Teen Challenge in Riverside, the Dream Center and Delancey Street Foundation in Los Angeles and the Salvation Army in Anaheim among others.
“These are usually spiritually-based work therapy programs, which means my clients must be capable of working eight hours a day, five days a week,” said Meza. “They remain in the program on their own merit by working and following the rules. I love these programs, due to the fact that the family doesn’t have to put out money.” She added the alternative for those with substance abuse disorders would be to pay $10,000 for a 30-day program, money that many, if not most of her clients don’t have. If the clients do not finish the program, it could be a violation and a return to court or jail.
“The other thing that’s amazing about her is that when she drives somebody, she gets them out of jail, takes them to our office and drives them to the program, let’s say it’s an hour or two. She’s lecturing them and telling them what they’ve done wrong, what they’re looking at if they’re not successful here,” added Harmon. “This is their time. She is really not only a social worker, but she is a counselor for them. She really helps people and that’s what our job is all about.”
Word has spread about Meza’s work and she regularly receives calls directly from people in jail as inmates talk about her work and her office number is written on the wall. Even though the referrals can only come from her office, she still takes time to counsel inmates who are looking for help. She recalled one inmate, “He would call me and call me and I told him ‘You’re not my client.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but I need help…I don’t have anybody.’” She kept in contact with him and met him several years later when he was released from state prison. “After seven or eight years of phone calls and we stayed connected and he now works for an asphalt company as a supervisor.”
Since 2010, Meza has transported about 1,300 clients from jail to rehabilitation programs (she’s received more than 3,700 referrals). Her work not only helps her clients get the treatment and/or training they need, it also alleviates some pressure on Riverside County’s jail population, which is under a court-mandated cap. CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative Team conducted a jail study that included a recommendation to expand custody alternatives.
Meza prides herself on making sure her clients get the help they need including connecting them with additional services dealing with mental health needs or substance abuse disorders and assisting them with other governmental agencies.
At the end of the day, she gets as much out of the work as her clients, “when you treat them as a person, not an inmate or a criminal, then they respect it and tend to try to make everybody who has helped them out happy,” said Meza. “It is a rewarding job and I wish people can experience what I experience.”
Added Harmon, “I wish I had ten Litas and then I’d ask for ten more.”