Lead Story West Edition

REFORMING THE SYSTEM: Rep. Karen Bass holds hearing on criminal justice reform

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — In an effort to find solutions to criminal justice reform, members of the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security arrived in Los Angeles July 13 to examine California’s criminal justice reforms and whether the lessons learned from past policies could be applied on a national scale.

On hand to hear the three-hour testimony were nearly 500 concerned community residents, the formerly incarcerated and criminal justice advocates who packed the room at First African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Renaissance Center on Adams Boulevard.

Committee Chairwoman U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, was joined on the panel by Reps. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, G.K. Butterfield, D-North Carolina, Dwight Evans, D-Pennsylvania, and Steven Horsford, D-Nevada.

“We hope to develop legislation on re-entry and are looking for other ways to reduce the prison population,” Bass said.

Also present were two panels of experts who spoke about the criminal justice system including Panel 1 speakers Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project and Justice Advocacy Project and a lecturer at Stanford Law School; Taina Vargas-Edmond, founder of Initiate Justice; and Charis E. Kubrin, professor of criminology, law and society.

Panel 2 speakers included Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project; Stanley Bailey of Durango, Colorado; and John Harriel, aka “Big John,” a mentor at gang intervention group 2nd Call.

“As a result of reforms here in California, incarceration levels in the state have decreased drastically,” Bass said. “California’s prison population had peaked at nearly 163,000 in 2006. By 2018, the California prison population stabilized at around 115,000 incarcerated persons, which is still far above capacity, but leaves California with the 18th lowest incarceration rate in the country. And remarkably, crime has not increased,”

“California has made strides,” said Bass. “After the 2011 Supreme Court case mandating the reduction of this unconstitutional incarceration, numerous ballot initiatives reflected the will of the people to scale back mass incarceration.”

Bass said that although many of the reforms took place by ballot initiatives, she applauded the grassroots leaders sitting in the room who fought for criminal justice reform. 

“It was the people in this room and others throughout our state who ignited a movement through many grassroots organizations that created the public will and identified the resources for the ballot initiatives to take place to begin with,” she said.

The reforms include narrowing the three strikes law, the revision of felony murder laws, the reduction of penalties for drug and theft offenses, the expansion of parole and earned time credits for early release from prison and the broad revision of juvenile laws.

“Voters want criminal justice reform,” said Romano, who said he was involved with helping to pass three ballot measures in California, Propositions 36, 47 and 57. “In three straight elections, we have overwhelmingly passed initiatives that have reduced criminal punishments for almost all crimes.

“I submit that the politics of tough on crime is over and we must take the opportunity to re-examine reform laws that we know don’t help public safety but instead inflict misery, destroy families and communities and cost billions of dollars,” Romano said.

“We must close prisons,” Vargas-Edmonds said. “Despite our decreasing prison population, the California corrections budget has continued to soar every single year.”

She said prison funds are used to pay for medical and mental health costs. “Facilities must close for us to eliminate these operating costs,” she said.

Vargas-Edmonds also suggested implementing more inclusive policy reforms. “Many folks convicted are [doing time] for non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offenses.”

She also suggested expanding restorative justice practices.

“Our existing criminal justice system is punitive in nature, meaning that we punish people rather than looking at root causes and focusing on healing and transformation of the individual.”

Vargas-Edmonds said that sentencing enhancement must end, including the Three Strikes Law in California. “Sentencing enhancements are meant to act as a deterrent for crime, but there is no evidence to suggest that,” she said.

Finally, she added, “We must ensure that people impacted by incarceration are leading these policy reforms. We must also restore voting rights to all people impacted by incarceration.”

Kubrin, who has done extensive research on Proposition 47, which reduced felonies to misdemeanors, said that people were afraid that inmates released under the proposition would cause a crime wave.

“We found very little evidence that Proposition 47 had an impact on violent or property crime in the state of California. The take away is that we can downsize our prisons without harming public safety and California has to be front and center in that discussion.”

Three survivors of the prison system then gave their testimonies.

Burton from Panel II testified that after her 6-year-old son was killed, she spiraled into a life of alcohol and drugs. Repeated drug offenses caused Burton to be sentenced to prison six times.

“I would plead my case and ask the judge for help, but I was always sentenced to prison,” Burton said, adding that she finally received help at a recovery center in Santa Monica.

Aware that women constituted the fastest growing segment of the prison population, Burton was determined to turn hers — and other formerly incarcerated women’s — lives around.

She purchased a home where former inmates could live and receive assistance with job counseling, legal services, and other programs to help them reintegrate into society.

The program was a success,proving that wraparound services and unwavering support can transform lives, she said.

“We’ve helped over 1,000 women return back to their communities and reunite with their children,” Burton said, adding that she has raised $2 million to help other states replicate her program.

Harriel, a union electrician who works for electrical contracting company Morrow-Meadows, revealed that his young life was chaotic.

“I came from a dysfunctional family,” he admitted, adding that he grew up in a family heavily involved with drugs. “I did not know that I suffered from low self-esteem.”

Pausing, he said, “I had visions of going to prison. Because in my neighborhood, prison was rewarded.”

The vision came true and Harriel was eventually behind bars. Luckily, he met mentors who recognized his potential.

After being released, Harriel was able to join the electrician’s union. He joined Morrow Meadows Construction Corporation and turned his life around, but he did not forget about his ‘homies in the hood.’

“I had a duty to help those same young men and women that others would call gang members, but whom I called friends,” he said, adding that he has helped former gang members enlist in the trade unions.

As a mentor with the gang intervention group 2nd Call, Harriel has helped to transform the lives of many young men.

“We are now picking up tape measures instead of guns and purchasing homes instead of doing home invasions because of life skills learned at 2nd Call,” Harriel said. “What we preach and teach is that we want you to be a better person—the careers come later.”

Bailey said he served time for 36 years in the state Department of Corrections after getting involved with drugs as a youth.

“I did not enter the prison as a thug,” he said. “I went in as an addict and there is a big difference. [Issues of] addiction and mental health make up a large proportion of the prison system. The mental health inmates who suffer are abused by both the inmates and staff, but addiction is not addressed.”

Bailey also said that inmates don’t get the training or support in prison that they need.

“When you get a significant amount of time, you’re sent to a prison with higher security,” he said. “So the programs that help you earn your way out are not available because of the constraints of safety. You’re not allowed to roam free in and out of your cell for evening classes.”

After being released, Bailey was picked up by Stanford’s Ride Home Program, which provides immediate, intensive and personalized reentry support to inmates released under reforms to California’s sentencing laws.

 “I am now a heavy equipment operator and a truck driver,” said Bailey, who said he was formerly a street sweeper on the streets of South Los Angeles.

“Housing and employment are the issues,” Bailey said. “Transitional housing [for released inmates] should be mandatory.”

After the riveting testimonies, the congressional delegation embarked on a bus tour of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, where they witnessed firsthand hundreds of displaced residents strolling aimlessly, sleeping in makeshift tents and even dozing in cardboard boxes on the sidewalk.

The newly homeless gravitate to gritty Skid Row where they subsist day by day. Many suffer from substance abuse, alcoholism or mental illness.

“The walking tour I took of Skid Row over the weekend was another reminder to never stop fighting on behalf of our community,” said Bass, who emphasized that the number of affordable services to help the homeless must be increased.

“It is time to declare a state of emergency and all that that entails,” she said.