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On Stephon Clark: The failure of public officials, the power of Black student protest, and the need for systemic reform

Like most people following the Stephon Clark case, I was, sadly, unsurprised by last week’s announcements that neither the Sacramento District Attorney’s office nor the State Attorney General would file criminal charges against the two officers who killed the unarmed 22-year old Black man in his grandmother’s backyard last March.

I watched with horror as District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert delivered her matter-of-fact character assassination of Clark, implying that he was to blame for his own death. I felt sick knowing that Schubert’s words would lead many to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that Clark led a life not worth caring about, or worse, that he somehow deserved to die.

The community’s grief and anger over the agencies’ announcements were compounded by the arrests and detention of over 80 people, including students and faith leaders, who protested the decision in the wealthy neighborhood of East Sacramento. By several first-hand accounts, protesters were trying to return to their cars when police herded the disbanding protesters onto the 51st street overpass with no exit. Journalists from the Sacramento Bee and Sacramento Business Journal were among those detained.

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn’s evasive and befuddled response to public questioning and criticism of his department’s handling of the protest only deepened the crisis. The D.A.’s decision not to file charges against the protesters is a relief, but in my view, the very least Sacramento leaders should do.

I am a resident of East Sacramento, and I am deeply outraged by Stephon Clark’s senseless death and the failure of leadership, lack of accountability, and re-traumatization of his family and the community that has followed in its wake. But amidst mine and the community’s despair, the movement for true, systemic criminal justice reform presses forward in Sacramento and in California.

Two days after the arrests of the 80 protesters, hundreds of Sacramento area college and high school students walked out of their classrooms and marched to the state Capitol in support of Assembly Bill 392, the California Act to Save Lives. Introduced by Assembly Member Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and co-authored by Assembly Member Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), the bill would change the current standard that allows police officers to use deadly force when they have a “reasonable belief” that they are at risk of harm, even if an alternative course is available. Like similar laws in Seattle and other jurisdictions that have reduced dangerous police interactions without evidence of increased harm to officers, AB 392 would only allow the use of deadly force if “necessary.”

What makes the student protesters so compelling is the personal nature of their cause. As they told the Sacramento Bee, they’re also at risk of being killed by the police unless they fight for changes to the system that led to Clark’s death and the many fatal police shootings before his. The students also smartly seek broad reform, like demanding area school districts end contracts that put police officers (“school resource officers”) on campus. Otherwise, benign behaviors of Black students and other students of color will continue to be criminalized, rather than being addressed through appropriate services and restorative practices.

At Western Center, we work regularly to address the racism embedded in our state and federal legal, health, and economic systems. For example, in the past five years, we stopped local governments from unjustly stripping Californians – many of whom are Black and Latinx – of their driver’s licenses, and we co-sponsored a law that dismantles the state’s money bail system, which keeps people (disproportionately people of color) locked up solely because they can’t afford to pay their way out. Currently, we are co-sponsoring a bill that would require implicit bias training for perinatal health care providers to help save the lives of Black mothers in California, because their risk of dying from pregnancy is five times higher than for other groups in the state.

Taking a page from Ta-Nehesi Coates, I trace what happened to Stephon Clark back to this country’s enslavement of Black people and the institutions that followed after abolition, from Reconstruction to present-day racial profiling and deadly healthcare disparities – all of which are structured around white supremacy. As conservative columnist David Brooks recently expressed in a New York Times opinion piece in support of reparations, the “sin” and “injury” of slavery “…shows up today as geographic segregation, the gigantic wealth gap, the lack of a financial safety net, but also the lack of the psychological and moral safety net that comes when society has a history of affirming: You belong. You are us. You are equal.”

I take heart knowing Western Center is part of the ongoing movement that lays bare these injuries and fights for the true systemic change necessary to heal them.

We Stand United Against Trump’s Divisive Public Charge Rule

Western Center’s Mona Tawatao shared her wisdom on the Trump Administration’s proposed Public Charge rules in the California Health Report. An excerpt is below, the full piece is available here.

In this country, we believe that our value and ability to contribute to society should not be based on how we look or how much money in our wallets. These principles of fairness and equal opportunity are what unite us as a nation.

The Trump administration’s proposed public charge rule flouts these core values. It is yet another one of the President Trump’s schemes to divide us. This is the president who has also torn apart families seeking asylum protection at our southern border and declared a “national emergency,” bypassing Congress and our Constitution, in an attempt to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.   

Newsom’s Made Poverty a Priority—But Women Have Been Working on It for Years

Children’s advocates were thrilled when Gov. Gavin Newsom came out big for them on Jan. 10 in his first budget proposal. He called for phasing in universal preschool, putting money into state-funded child care and investing in education for child care workers. State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said it’s clear Newsom will be an ally on social issues.

“And we’re also clear that we also helped set the table for him to have the luxury of coming in in 2019 and making these declarations and having money to spend,” she said.

…Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said women leaders in the Senate and Assembly drove poverty-related policies even while the state was dealing with a budget crisis.

“You saw women stepping forward and saying that poverty, that family poverty, that poverty among female-led households, was an important policy issue,” she said. “And you saw them apply this kind of creativity and big thinking that normally had been reserved for issues that weren’t involving poor children and their mothers.”

Read more here

Nonprofit Dental Insurer Under Scrutiny For ‘Flagrant’ Spending

Dental insurance giant Delta Dental of California is facing mounting criticism for paying its CEO exorbitantly, flying board members and their companions to Barbados for a meeting, and spending a small fraction of its revenue on charitable work — all while receiving significant state and federal tax breaks because of its nonprofit status.

Now, the company — which has 36.5 million enrollees in 15 states and the District of Columbia — is hoping to pay $155 million to acquire a 49.5 percent stake in for-profit medical and dental insurer Moda Health

…In December, Consumer Reports, California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, Health Access and the Western Center on Law & Poverty penned a letter to California regulators asking them to assess whether it’s appropriate for Delta Dental to be investing in a for-profit insurer.

Read more here

Governor Newsom’s proposed budget will reduce poverty, but Supplemental Security Income recipients are still ignored

By Mike Herald, Director of Policy Advocacy

Governor Newsom’s budget was released last week, and it is receiving well-deserved praise (including from Western Center) as an ambitious step toward creating a more equal California, and addressing the state’s poverty crisis. With bold proposals for ending childhood poverty, expanding health care access to young adults regardless of immigration status, and creating opportunities for families with children to get out of the cycle of poverty, Governor Newsom is sending a clear signal about his intention to take the state’s poverty issues seriously.

Western Center is thrilled with the Governor’s focus on ending poverty, and we look forward to the positive benefits it will have for millions of Californians, but there is one group that the new budget leaves out – Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients.

For many years, Western Center and others have pushed the Legislature and Governor to increase grants to the SSI program. All 1.3 million SSI recipients are living with disabilities, or are too old to work. With few exceptions, they are unable to earn a living and must rely on the grant they get each month to pay their rent, food and utilities.

The Governor’s new budget does not include an increase for the State Supplemental Payment (SSP), which was reduced a decade ago by the Schwarzenegger Administration to the federal minimum of $156 a month. This $77 a month reduction has never been restored, and has dropped one million SSI recipients into poverty as a result.

It has been a rough road for SSI recipients since cuts were made in 2009. In the time since, more than $11 billion has been taken from SSI recipients and put toward building the Rainy Day fund and budget surplus. The state’s budget “success” has been built on the backs of SSI recipients.

A few years ago, a coalition of groups came together to see if we could turn the situation around. The coalition included participants from a wide swath of disability, nutrition, and legal advocacy organizations, senior organizations, and SSI recipients. The coalition, known as Californians for SSI (CA4SSI), turned out for lobby days, budget hearings and committee hearings. Meetings were held repeatedly with the Governor’s office, the Pro Tem office, the Speaker’s office, and the Department of Finance urging them to restore funding for people depending on SSI to survive.

From the beginning, many SSI recipients were involved in every aspect of the coalition’s work — from building the website, to choosing messaging, to raising money — but one recipient in particular stands out, we will call him Mitch. Mitch never missed a call, never missed a hearing, and always spoke from his heart. He told powerful people even more powerful stories about SSI recipients living in their cars who had to depend on food banks every month to eat.

The coalition saw a sliver of success with a cost of living increase of $5 a month, but in spite of our combined efforts, the grants did not get restored. Frustrations began to mount inside the coalition, and many recipients felt that the coalition needed a new strategy.

We continued to lobby the state for an increase in SSI payments, and Mitch continued to show up faithfully, until one lobby day, when it became clear that he had reached a breaking point. Mitch became upset because he didn’t like the way that particular event was organized, and he yelled at staff and subsequently took to social media to criticize the campaign, which he called a failure. Despite efforts to mediate the situation, Mitch remains estranged from the coalition.

Unfortunately, Mitch was not the only SSI recipient who lost hope in our effort to advocate for SSI – many people became frustrated that we were not reaching our goal. The biggest frustration was that despite all of the hearings, meetings, and lobbying, we hadn’t accomplished what we set out to do.

People lost hope – it’s what happens when the least powerful in a society go up against the most powerful and get shut down. Mitch’s reaction was extreme compared to others, but the ache of his disappointment is shared by many SSI recipients and advocates working on the issue.

While this episode was playing out, CA4SSI embarked on a new strategy of repealing a 40-year-old state rule that barred SSI recipients from receiving SNAP food stamp benefits. With strong support from both houses of the Legislature and from Governor Brown, the rule was repealed in 2018. The state is currently working to implement the change, and by this summer, hundreds of thousands of SSI recipients will get SNAP.

This should be a happy ending, but in reality, SSI recipients have still not achieved the justice they deserve. The state is still taking $1 billion a year from SSI recipients, and while getting SNAP is good, less than half of the recipients will be eligible for food assistance. And as Mitch used to testify, there are SSI recipients who are homeless or living in cars because SSI is not enough to pay rent. For SSI recipients who receive SNAP, it won’t prevent homelessness, because SNAP can’t pay the rent.

So here we are, after the release of the boldest and most progressive budget our state has ever seen, while SSI recipients look down the barrel of year 12 of reduced grants. As we proceed into the budget revision process and head into spring, the question remains, will anything change for struggling SSI recipients, or will they once again be ignored?

Insider’s Report-November 2018

The Aftermath of the Fires

This year, Californians have faced an unprecedented number of natural disasters. But they no longer have to go at it alone. Thanks to Western Center and partners, we passed the first legislation in the country to require every county to have a disaster plan that prevents hunger among low-income Californians during and following a disaster. Need help for you or your family? Access disaster benefits by visiting the Disaster CalFresh website. Want to know more about this issue? Visit Western Center’s website.

NEWSOM’s early tests

THE BUZZ: Governing America’s biggest state ain’t easy.

— That fact was reinforced for Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom some 36 hours after he was decisively declared California’s incoming leader. With Gov. Jerry Brown out of state, Newsom was in charge as the acting governor. He was immediately greeted with twin cataclysms.

— First came the horrific shooting at a country bar in Los Angeles County. Newsom, who campaigned on going toe-to-toe with the National Rifle Association and championed a ballot initiative to regulate ammunition sales, found himself in the position of ordering flags to half staff in honor of Sgt. Ronald Lee Helus, who was slain responding to the shooting. A decidedly weightier matter than one Newsom grappled with in a previous rotation in the temporary governor’s seat.

Read more

Insider’s Report-October 2018



23 Bills Signed!

Western Center had another landmark year in Sacramento with 23 of our sponsored and co-sponsored bills on behalf of low-income Californians signed into law. Victories included the elimination of the predatory commercial bail industry, proactive measures to dismantle segregation and end housing discrimination, and defending Medi-Cal expansion against back door federal cuts. View the full list of signed bills.

Juvenile Justice Reform –
Western Center co-sponsored SB 190 discharges $90 million in juvenile fees

According to WCLP advocate Jess Bartholow, “In passing SB 190, California became a national leader in ending regressive and racially discriminatory juvenile fees.” Lupita Carballo notes the harm of juvenile fees: “My older brother has been in and out of the system since he was ten years old. My mother is a single mom and paid thousands of dollars in fees. I could tell how it worried her. She would leave the house for work at 4 am and come home at 6 or 7 at night. She would just look so sad and tired. I’m glad this will help other families.” Read our press release here.

Another Western Center victory for license suspensions

Western Center and other civil rights lawyers successfully settled a suit accusing the Los Angeles Superior Court of improperly suspending driving privileges for tens of thousands of poor people because they can’t afford to pay their traffic fines. “Courts were required by law to look at a person’s ability to pay a fine before ordering the suspension of a driver’s license,” said Antionette Dozier, Western Center senior attorney. “In Los Angeles, they didn’t follow the law.” Watch a news report on this settlement.

Trump’s Latest Assault on Immigrants Shreds a Half-Century of Reforms

For much of the past year, anti-poverty and immigrant-rights advocates have worried that the Trump administration would reshape immigration policy on the sly. In particular, they were concerned that hard-liners in the administration would use an obscure regulatory change about how to interpret the meaning of “public charge” as a way both of slashing the total number of immigrants allowed into the United States and of reimagining which sorts of immigrants gain access.

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Courts in most states charge juveniles to exist inside the justice system. This movement wants to change that.

When Brenda Tindal’s foster daughter got in trouble with the law, she knew it would take an emotional toll. She did not, however, anticipate that the teen’s three-month stint in a California juvenile detention center would cost $16,000.

The costs — which include a court-appointed attorney, electronic monitoring, staying in a juvenile hall and restitution — resulted in the garnishment of Tindal’s income and tax returns and led to the eventual loss of her home.

“I’m really in despair,” Tindal said. “There’s a dark cloud over my life. I have absolutely nothing.”

Read more here