“We need to continue criminal justice reform. We need to look at those laws that led to mass incarceration and one by one we need to reverse that.”
On July 13th, 2019, the judiciary subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, led by Congresswoman Karen Bass, held a hearing on “California Criminal Justice Reform: Potential Lessons for the Nation.” In addition to Karen Bass, Representatives Ted Lieu, Hank Johnson, Steven Horsford, Dwight Evans, and G.K. Butterfield were in attendance.
Among the topics discussed were the issue of mass incarceration and the disproportionate effect on minority communities.
The first of two witness panels began with the testimony of Michael Romano, founder and director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School. Romano attested to the success of Proposition 36, which changed the three strikes law to require that the third strike be “serious or violent” in order to incur a life sentence. Despite initial difficulty getting past committee, the proposition secured 70% of the statewide vote. As a result, approximately 200,000 inmates were freed – with a recidivism rate two times better than that of other released inmates. “Politics of ‘tough on crime’ is over,” Romano declared.
Following Romano’s address to the representatives, the next panel member to speak was Taina Vargas-Edmond, Co-founder and Executive Director of Initiate Justice in Los Angeles. Vargas-Edmond described three courses of action taken by California that she wishes to be adopted on a federal level:
First, Youth Offender Parole, mandating that the parole eligibility of offenders 25 years old or younger be taken into consideration. Those released on parole under this legislation have a recidivism rate of 2.2% in three years, significantly lower than average.
Second, the significant revision to the felony murder rule, which allows defendants to be charged with first-degree murder if a death occured during the commision of the felony. As of January 1, 2019, sentencing is determined on the basis of the direct actions of the defendant.
Lastly, Vargas-Edmond supported Proposition 57, which makes it more difficult for youth to be tried as adults, more parole availability, and the implementation of credit-earning programs for prisoners to earn a sentence reduction.
Each measure was implemented retroactively, a detail important to Vargas-Edomd’s reform beliefs. She also called for restorative justice practices, reform that includes serious offenders, an end to sentencing enhancements, and even for all prisons to be closed.
Next, Charis Kubrin, Professor of Criminology, Law, and Society at UC Irvine, discussed her analysis of crime rates following certain criminal justice form actions in California. She studied Realignment – a bill that allows non-violent felons to serve time in county jails rather than state prison, and are supervised by county probation upon release, finding that there was no impact on violent crime. Kubrin also studied crime rates following the implementation of Proposition 47, which made certain drug and property offenses misdemeanors rather than felonies. Comparing rates with states that have similar trends but did not implement anything analogous to Prop 47, researches found no increase in crime as a result of the proposition (There was an overall increase in crime, but not linked to Prop 47 – the other states also demonstrated higher crime rates). Kubrin concluded that it is possible to “downsize our prisons without harming public safety.”
The second panel focused on the lives of inmates after release – the first 24 hours are crucial to determine the future of former inmates.
Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life, emphasizes the unique struggles of women face after release and aims to minimize them by offering resources and assistance with housing, legal help, parental rights, and more. Burton also highlighted the disparity in resources for those in Santa Monica as compares to South Los Angeles, for example. She advocates on behalf of supporting formerly incarcerated women regardless of geographic location – from South LA to South Carolina and everywhere in between. Given her explanation that “Women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison system,” Burton has raised two million dollars aimed at replicating A New Way of Life in other states across the country.
Following Burton, panelist “Big John” Harrell spoke to his personal experiences with the justice system and beyond. Burton described his family’s relationship with drugs, living with his sister and mother and having “no men leading the way.” Harrell is a proponent of teaching life skills to those at risk as well as those leaving incarceration. Specifically, Harrell stressed the need for improved self-esteem and employment. Following questioning from congress members, Harrell described the problems faced when recently released inmates are forced to return to communities that fail to support the life skills he believes to be crucial to success. Harrell passionately advised “picking up tape measures instead of guns.”
Lastly, Stanley Bailey recounted the effects of spending 36 years in prison, and his release due to Proposition 36. For one, Bailey brought to the committee’s attention the lack of program opportunities in higher security prisons, as well as the abuse of mental health and addiction struggles by both other inmates and prison staff. Upon release, Bailey described, prisoners are only given 200 dollars – up to 120 of which can be subtracted for clothes and transportation. By the time Bailey was released, after all his years incarcerated, all of Bailey’s family had passed away. The direction and support provided by Stanford’s Ride Home program proved crucial to Bailey’s journey. He advised that transitional housing be mandatory for all released inmates.
During her allocated time to ask Panel Two questions, Bass revealed plans to develop a piece of legislation outlining a “one stop” re-entry program. Harrell suggested GED training and relationships with building trades, and Burton listed application for benefits, medical, childcare services, and reunification support.
Bass announced that her next step in the process of criminal justice reform is a hearing today, July 16th, in Washington D.C. to discuss women in the criminal justice system. “I believe that women and children get lost in the whole discussion around criminal justice reform,” Bass stated, and described plans to develop a bill focused on pregnant women in prison.
Text and Photo Credit – Tea Crunk