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Jim Dekker’s biography of CJCJ’s Cameo House Director, Shirley LaMarr, is a story of remarkable survival after addiction, poverty, and systemic racism and oppression. It is also a story of what is possible when we investment more in people, and the underlying causes crime, rather than incarceration.

Shirley LaMarr’s ancestors migrated from the American South and eventually settled in San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood to work in the nearby shipyards. At the time, Bayview-Hunters Point was one of the only areas in San Francisco where African Americans were allowed to live. Her mother struggled with alcoholism and never received support for her addiction, and by her twenties, Shirley too had dealt with poverty, drugs, abuse, violence, and loss. The book details Shirley’s own path from addiction to prostitution, a violent crime, a botched burglary, and rock bottom.

Looking at the daunting prospect of an eight-year prison sentence, on the advice of a prison guard, Shirley applied to Delancey Street. In the book, Dekker writes:

Shirley LaMarr’s resurrection began the moment she entered the doors of Delancey Street. She didn’t realize it all the time, but now, in the clarity of years of sobriety and honest self-reflection, there is no doubt: Delancey Street saved my life,’ she says.”

Shirley not only thrived in Delancey Street’s highly disciplined, individualized structure, but after her five years there, she set out to help others struggling with addiction. She started the Choices program in the San Mateo County jails, which has been operating for over 20 years. Additionally, Shirley operates Mz. Shirliz Transitional Centre and directs CJCJ’s Cameo House, a residential alternative sentencing program. 

At the center of her work is the understanding that incarceration is not a viable solution to addiction and the many underlying causes of crime. She says:

Entirely punitive measures just don’t work. Sending an addict back on the streets after serving his time without preparing them to handle their addictions when they are released is to set them up for failure. You want to keep incarceration costs down? You want to lower recidivism rates? You want safer neighborhoods? Then give them the coping skills to make it.”

Find out more about Not Without Scars: The Story of Shirley LaMarr »

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