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Judge Offers Redemption Over Incarceration

By the year 2000, Judge John Phillips had long since lost count of the number of minors he had sent through the California penitentiary system for crimes committed during a violent and hopeless adolescence. He said on one occasion, “You send these young people to prison, and they learn to become harder criminals.”

In 2003, he set out to find a better way—to get kids in an environment of support where they could pass through these difficult years with a hand on their shoulder. Phillips started Rancho Cielo in the town of Salinas, ironically using an old juvenile detention center.

Rancho Cielo has a wide variety of programs, much of which is hands-on and kinetic, from the carpentry and construction program and vintage car repair, to beekeeping and equestrian care. Experts and industry professionals frequent Rancho Cielo to share their knowledge; like Tom Forgette who teaches the auto and diesel repair shop, and Laura Nicola, co-manager of the ranch restaurant, whose other job is at the James Beard Award-winning La Bicyclette.

“Upstairs,” traditional high school level classes are held for academic topics like writing and mathematics, usually to prepare students for a GED or community college admission. This is paired with additional preparatory courses like resume and cover letter writing and interview skills.

17-year-old Omar Amezola said, “In my other school, it was all reading and writing. Here the teachers are more chill, you don’t have to stay in your seat all day, you can do things that are hands-on—it’s cool.”

Each year, 220 students attend Rancho Cielo. While some don’t make it, 84.8% of first-time offenders who enroll at Rancho Cielo never re-offend, compared to the 40% recidivism rate in the county. Even with all the tutoring, diversity, and infrastructure, it costs just $25,000 to put a kid through Rancho Cielo, compared to the $110,000 it costs to house them in prison.

Possible Preaching Angle:

Grace; Judgement; Justice; Mercy – There is only endless punishment when God judges the guilty for their sins. But through his redemptive grace, he offers hope, a new life, and a new beginning to those who come to him in faith in Christ.


Andy Corbley, “Jobs, Not Jail: A Judge Was Sick of Sending Kids to Prison, So He Found a Better Way,” Good News Network (11-28-23)

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