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Category: Racial Justice

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Western Center teams up with The Last Black Man in San Francisco for community workshop

The Last Black Man in San Francisco tells the story of Jimmie Fails, a black man fighting to maintain his place in his hometown of San Francisco. Western Center fights every day for people in communities like those highlighted in the film, so we teamed up with the filmmakers for a community storytelling workshop in Bayview — one of the last working class neighborhoods in San Francisco.

Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot shared their experience making the movie, from childhood conversations to the Sundance Film Festival. Workshop attendees also shared their stories, from spoken word to rap.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is in theaters this summer, so be sure to put it on your summer movie list!

GUEST BLOG: Understanding the impact of criminal administrative fees, and how solutions like SB 144 can move California toward a more equitable future

By Stephanie Campos-Bui

I am a supervising attorney in the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, where we have been researching fines and fees in the justice system since 2013.

In 2017, we worked closely with Senator Mitchell and then-Senator Lara on Senate Bill 190, co-sponsored by Western Center, Youth Justice Coalition, and PolicyLink, among others, which repealed county authority to charge juvenile fees to families of young people in California. One year into implementation of SB 190, all 58 counties have stopped charging juvenile fees.

Given what we learned about juvenile fees, we are now supporting research efforts on fee assessment and collection practices in the criminal (adult) justice system. We have already observed similar findings to those in the juvenile space.

The majority of fees currently charged to people who come into contact with the justice system were authorized during the 1980s and 90s during the War on Drugs, and when the state faced a multi-billion-dollar deficit — the Legislature turned to fine and fee revenue to fill funding holes.

As a result, the existing fee scheme in California is wide-reaching and overly complex. At nearly every point in the criminal legal process, California state law authorizes counties to charge fees. From booking and arrest, representation by a public defender, to court-ordered programs and probation supervision, an individual can face a host of fees, including for collection. Counties also have discretion on the amount charged, so practices vary widely across California. In San Diego County, an adult on probation for five years can be charged almost $12,000, but just miles over in neighboring Imperial County, they would be charged $1,700.

To protect individuals against excessive fees, state law allows, but does not mandate, counties to consider an individual’s income and resources before assessing fees. In many instances, counties do not conduct meaningful ability-to-pay determinations or any determinations at all, leaving individuals with bills they cannot afford and will never pay.

We saw this in the recent Court of Appeals decision, People v. Duenas, in which Western Center was involved on behalf of the defendant, Duenas. In that case, LA County failed to assess whether a single mother, Velia Duenas, could pay the fines and fees imposed against her. In addition to finding the county in violation of due process under the United States and California Constitution, the court recognized that “…imposing unpayable fines on indigent defendants is not only unfair, it serves no rational purpose, fails to further the legislative intent, and may be counterproductive.”

Our ongoing research has shown that the snowball effect of fees can cause significant economic and social harm, while generating low revenue. Fees can quickly add up to thousands of dollars, and once imposed, can become civil judgments, subjecting individuals to tax intercepts and wage garnishments, which impacts credit scores and limits access to stable employment, housing, education, and public benefits. A survey conducted by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that the average debt for fines and fees was $13,607.

According to a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, people sometimes turn to underground communities or criminal activity to manage the financial strain of high outstanding fees. Studies have also found that criminal justice debt correlates with a greater likelihood of an individual returning to prison. Those negative outcomes not only harm public safety, but also makes reentry into society much harder.

Unsurprisingly, all of this disproportionately harms low-income people and people of color. Due to over-policing and targeted policing in communities of color, Black and Brown people are punished more frequently and harshly at a variety of discretion points, which leads to higher fee burdens.

Theoretically, fees are intended to help local jurisdictions recoup costs associated with the justice system. Yet counties often recover only a small proportion of what they assess. In Alameda County, the rate of collection on probation supervision fees during 2017 was 4%.  In San Francisco, the collections rate for probation fees in 2016 was 9%.

Such low return rates are not a result of lax collection efforts, but because most system-involved individuals are low-income and cannot afford to pay the fees. For example, in Humboldt County, eighty-four percent of people on probation had a monthly income of less than $1,000.

Additionally, counties spend significant resources trying to assess and collect fees. Records from LA County showed that in fiscal year 2017-18, the County spent $3.9 million to collect $3.4 million in probation fees, resulting in a loss of half a million dollars. Even in counties where collection costs don’t exceed revenue, the resources put toward collection efforts—both within county and to private agencies—do not result in significant returns. And fees are not just costly, they also crowd out spending on positive social goods like healthcare and education. The lack of investment in those areas imposes harm over time, prolongs and exacerbates poverty, and generates costs to families, communities, and society.

The good news is that we have already seen reform across the state. Los Angeles County eliminated its public defender registration fee in 2017 after recognizing the fee’s potential to dissuade people from using their constitutionally-guaranteed right to counsel. San Francisco County eliminated 12 criminal administrative fees and penalties in June 2018, discharging $32 million, and Alameda County ended the assessment and collection of five administrative fees in November 2018, discharging $43 million.

Statewide, SB 190 ended juvenile fee assessments as of January 1, 2018, and 36 of 58 counties opted to go beyond the requirements of the law by also ending collection on over $236 million in outstanding fees, which underscores the commitment counties have to doing right by the populations they serve.

This year, Senate Bill 144, co-sponsored by Western Center, ACLU California, East Bay Community Law Center, PolicyLink, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Youth Justice Coalition, and more, builds on these reform efforts by tackling the array of fees and costs charged to people in the criminal justice system. The bill addresses fees charged for booking and arrest, representation by counsel, diversion and alternative programming, probation, court-ordered programs and classes, drug and alcohol testing, collection fees, and civil assessments. The bill also seeks to end collection on unpaid fees and discharge and vacate outstanding debt.

The use of fines and fees has widened the reach and impact of the justice system to include more people, and has created long-lasting collateral consequences which ultimately serve the racially motivated underpinnings upon which our justice system was built—to control and marginalize black and brown communities. Fees and fines are not a reasonable answer for any of society’s problems — the criminal justice system should be funded by a more stable, predictable, and equitably-generated source of funding. SB 144 is a substantial step in that direction.

 

Western Center, Debt Free Justice Coalition Sponsoring Bill to End Criminal Justice Admin Fees

Senate Bill 144, introduced by Senator Holly J. Mitchell, was amended with text that will end the assessment and collection of administrative fees imposed against people in the criminal justice system. By doing so, it would dramatically reduce the economic hardships caused by court-ordered debt and enhance the economic security of system-involved populations, their families and their communities. SB 144 will usher in an era of criminal justice policy that does not rely on stripping wealth from communities of color and low-income communities. The Debt Free Justice Coalition is sponsoring the legislation and has issued the following statements:

“Eliminating administrative fees will allow formerly incarcerated people to devote their already limited resources to critical needs like food, education, housing and health insurance. Repealing criminal fees will result in improved employment prospects for formerly incarcerated people and put more money in the pockets of economically insecure families, aiding successful reentry and reducing California’s recidivism rate.”

— Jessica Bartholow, Western Center on Law and Poverty

Read full statement here.

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.   

Want to Eradicate Hunger in America? Take on Racism.

With more than 40 million people in the country struggling with hunger, anti-hunger advocates in the United States have their work cut out for them. In 2017, nearly 12 percent of all US households were food insecure—meaning they didn’t have access to enough food for all household members to lead active, healthy lives. Food insecurity is stratified across racial lines, affecting less than 9 percent of white households in America, but nearly 22 percent of black households and 18 percent of Latinx households.

…Jessica Bartholow, a poverty-and-hunger advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, agrees that national hunger organizations need to bring a robust racial analysis to their work, particularly with regard to how racist and oppressive systems are impacting efforts to end hunger among people of color. “If you’re not asking how race impacts outcomes in 2019, then you missed something really important about this country,” she said. “We can have the best school-meal program in the world, but if black girls are getting pushed out of school due to racism, they’re not going to get that meal anyway.”

Read more 

Western Center Submits Comments Opposing Public Charge Rule Change

Western Center has submitted comments to the Department of Homeland Security in opposition to the Trump administration’s proposed Public Charge rule changes, joining over 150,000 others. An excerpt from Western Center’s comments are below, and the full comments are available here.

As California’s oldest and largest legal services support center, we have over
50 years’ experience fighting to reduce poverty in our state through the courts, the
legislature, and by working with state and local agencies to ensure our laws are fair and
justly implemented. We can speak directly to which federal and state policies serve to
reduce poverty in our communities thus benefitting our state and country as a whole
and which policies worsen poverty, penalize families struggling to make ends meet, and
hurt us all.

The recent notice of rulemaking proposes sweeping and very harmful changes to the
current public charge test – the test used to determine which immigrants are
inadmissible when they seek to enter the country or adjust their status to that of
permanent residents. The proposed regulations would punish immigrants, mostly those
who are people of color, for any use of a broad swath of public benefits, including
health, nutrition, and housing assistance, and further punish low-to-moderate income
families solely for their lack of wealth. This would be a radical departure from current
agency guidance that limits public charge determinations to those who are primarily
dependent on cash benefits and long term care medical services, and even then, only
after examining the totality of the circumstances.

Simply stated, laws and regulations that increase barriers to safe and affordable
housing, food, and health care are not only harmful in the short run, they have been
proven to have lasting detrimental effects throughout the lifetime of an individual and
even on the next generation. In other words, harsh and punitive short term spending
cuts generally backfire by decreasing the ability for individuals to support themselves
and their families. People cannot go to or do their best at work or school when they are
hungry or sick.

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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