On Friday September 13, BOSS and Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ) hosted a special community forum to continue the conversation on criminal justice reform – building on the progress made after BOSS’s first Breaking Barriers event in 2017 and the subsequent release of the CSJ white paper, Repairing The Road to Redemption.
Held at Greenlining Institute in downtown Oakland, the event brought together professionals in the criminal justice system, elected official representatives, advocates, and system-impacted individuals. After speakers and guests gathered and helped themselves to coffee and pastries, BOSS Executive Director Donald Frazier gave a warm welcome, and recapped the prior Breaking Barriers event and the progress that has been made since then – understanding that there is still much more progress to be made.
“We need to think about our policies,” Donald said. “And how they benefit one group and don’t benefit another group.”
Those policies, and the community activism that influences policies, were the themes of the day. Terrance Stewart, M.Ed., CA State Director of the TimeDone Project, took the podium and talked about the barriers that face people coming out of prison – people who have done their time, who want work, support their families, and turn over a new leaf, but are prevented from doing so due to thousands of policy roadblocks put in their way.
“It’s simple,” Terrance said. “Give us the opportunity to work.”
Terrance described his own journey to contribute to society by following the rules, getting a degree, finding work and housing, paying taxes, and taking care of his family despite the hardships. He encouraged people to look at his own story as inspiration for what’s possible when individuals join together in movements.
“It ain’t about division, it’s about multiplication,” he said. “It’s about working together.”
Town Kitchen (a social enterprise that combines job training with high quality catering) provided the group with a Fall-themed lunch of honey-glazed chicken, beans, cornbread, wild rice pilaf, and salad, after which the panel discussion began. Panelists included:
- Nancy O’Malley, Alameda County District Attorney
- Edward Little, Californians for Safety and Justice
- Dorsey Nunn, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC)
- John Jones III, Just Cities
- Youseef Elias, Chief Assistant Public Defenders Office
- Wendy Still, Alameda County Chief Probation Officer
Panel moderator Donald Frazier asked each panelist to describe what they feel is the biggest barrier to reentry, and what progress they find most encouraging. Nancy O’Malley talked about the significant barrier returning citizens face of having to disclose a criminal record, which screens them out of housing or work opportunities.
“The biggest challenge,” she said, “is the long history of laws that are causing barriers, which are nuanced and need policy solutions.”
She talked about legislation that Alameda County has formulated to make pardons and expungement more ‘evidence-based’ rather than artibrarily time-driven (i.e. after a ten year wait).
Next, Dorsey Nunn talked about the history of social justice progress, and how we may not always recognize that positive changes are not just the result of decision-makers suddenly changing their mind on issues, but rather they are the result of persistent, passionate behind-the-scenes advocacy, meetings with policy makers, and pressure brought to bear over time. He encouraged the group to look at themselves differently – with pride and confidence, and to know that they can move forward in their lives and help society move forward.
“My dream is not contained by your limitations,” Dorsey declared to loud applause.
He talked about his personal efforts to develop affordable housing, his career-long dedication to supporting people’s freedom and rights, and the challenges of getting ahead post-release.
“When you get out of prison you get $200 in assistance,” he said. “To qualify for some subsidized housing, you need to make at least $47,000 a year. How do you get from $200 to $47,000? How do you do that?”
Wendy Still then talked about the County’s efforts on the issues of fines and fees – and the real barrier they post to individuals without income who are trying to reintegrate into the community. The County has been working to eliminate many fines and fees, and on other positive changes.
Next, Youseef Elias talked about specific bills that Assembly Member Rob Bonta has helped pass, including 310 (Authored by Senator Nancy Skinner), which will allow people with a felony conviction to serve on a jury – the bill is now on Governor Newsom’s desk.
“Our clients look around and they want to be judged by a jury of their peers,” he said.
He also talked about Amendment 6, which would allow people on parole or on post-release community supervision to vote, and described a special education project on voter rights Bonta’s office has undertaken called VOICE – Voter Outreach Increases Community Empowerment.
John Jones was the next to speak, and talked about his own challenges finding housing as a single father. Despite being somewhat known in the community, with a good job and references, he was being turned down due to having a record. He asked the room who had ever been called by a bill collector, and most people raised their hands (including panelists).
He then challenged them with the question, “After you’d paid that bill, do you think it would be right and fair for the bill collector to keep calling you?”
He also talked about the importance of having justice-involved individuals in the struggle to change policies.
“We are the experts,” he said. “It’s cool to have good people advocate on behalf of the formerly incarcerated, but it’s more powerful when we can speak about our direct experiences.”
Edward Little then talked about CSJ’s efforts, and their long-term goal.
“We want to sunset convictions,” he said. “We want to create a reality when all of these band-aid policies aren’t necessary.”
He asked people to think about the possibilities alive inside every one of us – the possibilities, hopes, dreams, and goals people have – and ask themselves, “Who would you be without a felony conviction?”
BOSS will continue the fight for reform through its Social Justice Collective (SJC), which engages justice-involved individuals in collaborative campaigns to change policies. To get involved, contact Tim Smith, BOSS Director of Reentry Services, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510.649.1930 x 3008.
Thank you to all the panelists, speakers, and guests for making the day possible – to Greenlining for hosting us – to Town Kitchen for the wonderful lunch – and to the staff team who helped put the event together. It’s not about division, it’s about multiplication!
Download the Repairing The Road to Redemption report here.