Breaking Barriers Community Forum

On Monday, September 11th the community came together to share stories and discuss barriers to success, and possible solutions to a pervasive issue: felony convictions and the collateral consequences.

Participants in the discussion included Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, executive staff from a multitude of nonprofits across California who are actively working to support people facing and recovering from felony convictions, as well as individuals who have been personally impacted by our criminal justice system.

Our day was opened by Keith Carson, Alameda County Supervisor, District 5. He is a long-time supporter of BOSS and programs such as CTEC that actively work to help individuals impacted by felony convictions get and keep life-changing, living-wage jobs. His tenure as Supervisor operates on a platform dedicated to urgent problems including access to health care, ending poverty, homelessness, crime, improving business retention, and addressing the scarcity of jobs in our communities

Mr. Carson shared some inspirational thoughts and ideas on our criminal justice system:

We could do so much more with our funds than just warehousing people. We are missing out on the income, the education, the contribution to the community, the support to the family. We are failing our communities. We have to go a different way. The old way did not work, it has failed. It has failed society. We need a new way. Now is the time. No one can do it alone. The system has been devised to tear you down. The system is devised to not give you hope. So to come through the system and say that it isn’t going to tear you down is very powerful.

Graham Drake, aide to Assemblymember Rob Bonta came next. Mr. Drake is passionate about the negative impacts of mass incarceration to our community. He has background in criminal justice work, coming to Rob Bonta’s office after working for the Civil Rights Project at Harvard Law School (now located at UCLA) with a focus on the school to prison pipeline. Graham shared information on California Legislation that is currently moving through the legislative process and which would greatly improve the fairness, well-being, and rights of people who are facing prosecution, currently incarcerated, or previously incarcerated.

Remarks were also presented by Ms. Elaine Brown. Ms. Brown is a life-long activist, author, singer/songwriter, supporter of equality, and former leader of the Black Panther Party. Her speech was an impassioned tapestry of data on the destruction of the community through the delivery of individualized civil death sentences and ruination of the family unit, and how the system is disproportionately aimed at people of color. For example, with 2.4 million people incarcerated, the United States Mass Incarceration system has more than 20% of the world’s prisoners, but we only represent 5% of the world’s total population. It costs us $75,000 a year to keep someone incarcerated, more than tuition, room, and board to attend Harvard.

Ms. Brown was followed by Anna Cho Fenley, Director at the California nonprofit Crime Survivors for Justice and Safety. She leads the crime survivor program for California, working to advocate for more investments in prevention and trauma recovery instead of more investments in prisons and punishment. She opened with self-disclosing that she is a survivor of abuse and trauma. She asked poignant questions, “What defines safety? Why is it that what we feel defines safety isn’t the dominant narrative on what is safety?…We lose something when we talk about survivors and offenders as separate communities.” Anna pointed out that often legislators use the stories of survivors to push forward legislation that is detrimental to our communities and that does not necessarily represent legislation desired by survivors. Survivors are revictimized by the theft of their narratives that are then used to visit retribution, not to heal, not to make us safer.

Working in conjunction with Anna Cho Fenley was Jerron “Jay” Jordan. He is Project Director of Second Chances, a program within Californians for Safety and Justice, and has worked at the intersection of social justice and politics throughout his career. Jay was compelled to create his own non-profit that focused on teen diversion and civic engagement because of his experience as a troubled youth who served time in prison. Jay Jordan served as one of the lead organizers for the Campaign to Ban the Box for the city of Los Angeles.

Jay’s amazing presentation was full of information about the collateral consequences of our criminal justice system. The two most powerful moments were when he used an infographic to show the direct intersection of poverty, criminality, and failing communities as well as the information that the United States loses out on $87 Billion a year in tax revenue, income, home ownership, and local consumer agency due to the loss of rights and life-long limitations imposed upon individuals with felony convictions. How many rights and limitations do we impose? 4,800 within the state of California, and nearly 50,000 National/Federal rights. He then unfurled a printout of all the rights lost — more than a dozen feet long in what looked to be 9-point font.

“If the purpose of the mass incarceration system is to keep us safe, how is it doing that when the basic safety net for all is denied to the people most in need? To “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” requires employment, which is made all the more difficult when people are denied licenses, insurance, job placement, and income reduction for the rest of their lives!”

The final full-room engagement was a panel discussion moderated by Armand Carr, founder of the local nonprofit All Tied Up, and DJ of The Quiet Storm on KBLX 102.9 FM. Panelists included Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, Marilyn Jones, Executive Director of Because Black is Still Beautiful, Eddy Zhang from Asian Prisoner Support Committee, and Doug Butler from Cypress Mandela Training Center.

Brendon Woods focused on his personal and professional struggles as an individual, as a defense attorney, and finally as Public Defender. Nancy O’Malley imparted information on the pressures put on her by legislation as well as prominent individuals and groups within the community. Marilyn Jones shared her experiences as an addict, getting and staying clean, and attempting to overcome her early life choices, as well as the trauma of trying to expunge her felonious records. Eddy Zhang was instrumental in keeping the passion going, but also in being mindful of the moment. He shared his story as an immigrant, and made sure we never forgot about the even more vulnerable circumstances associated with being an undocumented immigrant. Finally, Doug Butler straddled all barriers speaking from his experiences as an Oakland Police Officer, his time as an addict, his time in prison, and his life now as an advocate and mentor to people caught up in the criminal justice system.

After the panel discussion, we broke out into ten small discussion groups, to discuss benefits (such as SNAP, EBT, housing vouchers, health care and others), Community Supervision, Education, Fees & Fines, Health, Housing, Immigration, Jobs and Licensing, Parental Participation, and Trauma — each table with a facilitator and notetaker. After 45 minutes of discussion, each table presented what the groups shared, learned, and propose.

The day was empowering, educational, and thought-provoking, bringing together over 100 people and a dozen organizations. The goal was “to develop a multi-year policy agenda that addresses collateral consequences.” The data, ideas, and directives devised by the community forum will be combined with the results of similar forums that have taken place across the state in all 58 counties, as part of building a statewide policy agenda. Californians for Justice are coalescing all the results of all forums into a single white paper. Stay tuned for its release!

BOSS is compiling a report with all content from the day which we will first send to Californians for Safety and Justice, since this event was one of a series of events CSJ has hosted as part of their Second Chances initiative. BOSS will distribute the full report in late September to everyone who attended. To receive a copy of the report please contact us.

To receive updates on this and other news related to reentry work and criminal justice reform, contact Sonja Fitz at to be added to our email newsletter list.

See pictures from the day by visiting our Facebook and Flickr pages or view the slide show below for some of the choicest moments.