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California Hopeful for a Landmark Criminal Justice Reform Victory

July/August Newsletter
August 31, 2016
Bend the Arc

Bend the Arc leaders discuss juvenile justice at an event in San Francisco on August 25 to build support for SB 1143.Bend the Arc leaders in California have been organizing alongside our partners to reform the state’s broken criminal justice system. Through organizing and lobbying, we are seeing shifts in public policy that address years of systematic neglect — from sentencing reform with Proposition 36 in 2012 and Proposition 47 in 2014 to the current effort to end the practice of juvenile room confinement — where incarcerated youth are kept isolated and alone for days or weeks at a time.

That bill, SB 1143, has passed the state legislature with no opposition this summer and only needs the Governor’s signature to become a landmark law in the U.S.

Right now in California there are no limits on the use of room confinement for incarcerated juveniles — a reality with devastating consequences for the health and reintegration of youth. Kalief Browder’s tragic suicide last year in New York brought national attention to the lasting repercussions of solitary isolation.  

After participating in an effort last year to pass a similar bill, Bend the Arc: Bay Area became an official co-sponsor of this year’s legislation, which has been driven by the sustained leadership of The Ella Baker Center. Getting SB 1143 to Governor Brown’s desk was no easy task, and Bend the Arc is honored to be part of the powerful coalition advocating for the bill. Now we are working to ensure the Governor signs the bill and puts these important reforms into law.

On Monday, August 29, we delivered 175 individual support letters to the Governor, along with numerous organizational endorsements from our partners. This effort caps 18 months of hard work by the Bay Area’s Criminal Justice Reform team along with Southern California’s Campaign team and the support of Bend the Arc staff. Volunteer leaders held phonebanks to build support, organized lobby visits with legislators, communicated with every member of the Assembly Appropriations Committee (where the bill died last year), wrote opinion pieces published in Jewish publications, and educated the broader Jewish community.

An event planned by the Criminal Justice Reform team in San Francisco on August 25 was powerful and engaging. The event, “Confronting the System: A Night of Action for Juvenile Justice,” was led by Alea Gage, current Jeremiah Fellows Jess Bendit and Ezra Leventhal, and featured Frankie Guzman and John Jones, both leaders in the fight for criminal justice reform, both formerly incarcerated. They spoke about the circumstances that led to their incarceration, the traumatic and violent experiences that accompany incarceration, and their paths from being in the system to being leaders moving systemic change. John is on staff with Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice and active in criminal justice reform organizing around the state. Frankie is a staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law.

Bend the Arc’s work on criminal justice reform in California first kicked into high gear back in 2014 when local leaders chose this area of work through a grassroots campaign selection process. Leaders felt compelled to address the crisis of mass incarceration, including in particular its connection to racial justice. SB 1143 is one element of a multi-pronged strategy to address mass incarceration, as the need to end the “war on drugs” gains bipartisan support, and sustained organizing continues to bear fruit. We wait in anticipation as SB 1143 sits on the desk of Governor Brown.

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