Faith Leaders Unite to Support Prop. 47

Faith Leaders Unite to Support Prop. 47

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LOS ANGELES -- The real-life story of José Osuna -- like the character Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables -- gives credence to the idea that a second chance is sometimes all you need to turn your life around.

A second chance is essentially what California’s Proposition 47, if approved by voters, would provide. The law would reduce prison terms for offenders like Osuna who were given long sentences for minor and non-violent offenses. The law would also reclassify many non-violent felonies, such as drug possession, as misdemeanors.

According to the most recent California Department of Corrections report, there are roughly 133,000 inmates incarcerated in California state prisons on any given day. If Proposition 47 passes, about one in five of those inmates could have their prison sentences reduced retroactively, resulting in early releases.

“At 17, I was arrested for a drug offense," said Osuna, 45, who was a drug user and gang member before he reached 13. "When I was convicted, the judge sentenced me to a California state prison for five years." Those years, he said, transformed him into something he never set out to be: a criminal. When he was released in his early 20s, he rejoined a gang and spent 13 of the next 17 years in and out of 12 different state prisons.

Stories like Osuna’s are commonplace in California, where the prison population has grown in recent decades to accommodate non-violent offenders swept up in the net of the federal War on Drugs and the state’s Three Strikes Law. Passed in 1994, that law imposed mandatory life sentences on anyone convicted of a third felony, regardless of whether that felony was violent or deemed serious in nature – something as minor as possession of an ounce of marijuana or stealing a hubcap would result in time served.

Osuna views the state prison system as a machine that feeds on people like him, only pretending to provide safety to the public. Recent trends suggest that the general public may be starting to see things similarly: in 2012 voters approved Proposition 36, a law that weakened the Three Strikes Law considerably, and seemed to signal a shift in public opinion in California about the role of prisons.

Faith leaders at the forefront

Today, alarmed by mass incarceration that has been separating families and damaging young people in their communities, religious leaders around the state are using Proposition 47 as a lightening rod to mobilize their constituents. Religious leaders gathered at a recent faith summit in Los Angeles, to map out a grassroots campaign to educate their congregations and get them out to vote for Prop. 47 on the November ballot.

Billed as The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act, Prop. 47 would reclassify most of the “non-serious and nonviolent property and drug crimes" from a felony to a misdemeanor and permit re-sentencing for people who are serving sentences for misdemeanors and especially infractions.

The summit attracted nearly 150 religious and civic leaders from faiths such as Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, diverse Christian denominations, and ethnic communities such as African Americans, Jews, Latinos, Arabs, Filipinos, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Hmong.

Referring to the prison system – in which African-American and Latino populations are overrepresented -- as racist and injustice, Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, an independent congregation in Los Angeles, and Imam Shakeel Syed of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, joined in their call for community groups, regardless of ethnic makeup or religious affiliation, to unite in support of Prop. 47.

Other leaders, such as Father Wm. Tom Davis of Our Mother Of Good Counsel Catholic Community and Minister Alvin Tunstill of the Trinity Baptist Church, said the issue affects everyone.

“We should spend money on education, finding jobs for people, rather than keeping people in jails. Not only that, [but] socially, every time a person is jailed, his or her family is wrecked,” said Rev. Tunstill.

A matter of priorities

According to the California Budget Project, the state spends $9,280 per K-12 student annually. In contrast, California spends a whopping $62,000 per state prisoner – more than six times the amount they spend per student. Forty-one percent of California inmates never graduated from high school.

The figures, Prop. 47 supporters suggest, show that if the number of prison inmates were reduced, the savings could be used for education, which in turn would boost the economy and reduce crime.

Another participant at the summit was Lam Nguyen, a Vietnamese activist with PACT (People Acting in Community Together) from San Jose, Calif. Nguyen said that although the overall number of people incarcerated in his community is low, he doesn’t see the mass incarceration crisis as only an African-American or a Latino issue, but as an issue that impacts all Californians.

Pastor Cherteng Vang and community activist Tsia Xiong, both immigrants and members of the Hmong community in the Central Valley, also joined the coalition in support of Prop. 47.

“Unbeknownst to most people, we Hmongs have the highest rates of incarcerated youths among the Asian populations,” said Xiong, who came to the United States in 1980. “Our people are completely identified with African Americans and Latinos on this issue.”

According to Vang and Xiong, many Hmong youth join gangs for self-defense because they are bullied as “fresh off the boat” immigrants. Others fall into crime because they have a hard time assimilating in America. Both said they believe Prop. 47 would give many troubled Hmong a second chance.

To date, the proposition has garnered a spectrum of supporters including California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, past President Esau Herrera of California Latino School Board Member Association, President Suzy Loftus of the City and County of San Francisco Police Commission, the Bay Area Crime Survivors of Safety and Justice Network, and numerous community and labor advocacy groups.

Opposing Prop. 47 are primarily law enforcement agencies and victim advocacy groups such as California District Attorneys Associations, California Narcotics Officers Association, California Police Chiefs Associations, Crime Victims Action Alliance and Crime Victims United. These groups argue that Prop. 47 would unleash unrepentant criminals onto the streets of California, and that reclassifying certain felonies to misdemeanors would also threaten public safety.

Speaking on behalf of the California Police Chiefs Association, Chief Ron Lawrence of Rocklin, California, said the perception that law enforcement agencies and major district attorneys support the status quo of the prison system is unfounded. In fact, the group recognizes the need to reduce the overcrowding of the prison population in California and has participated in many efforts with the California Governor and legislators to solve the problem.

However, Prop. 47, the way it is written, Chief Lawrence argues, would reclassify serious drug crimes, sexual assaults, and other felonies to misdemeanors and give early releases to about 8,000 to 10,000 inmates.

“Prop. 47 is reckless for California. It’s a slap to many victims,” added Chief Lawrence. “It’s not the way to solve the [problem of overpopulation in the] California prison system.”

Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews, Director of Clergy Organizing at PICO National Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the safety issue has been greatly exaggerated by law enforcement groups.

He explained that if the proposition is passed, a review process would be set up to evaluate each case to ensure that each inmate who deserved a second chance is actually ready to be re-integrated back into the society. Furthermore, he said, the focus of the initiative is on light offenders, not hard criminals.

But Chief Lawrence doesn’t believe the review process would provide a safeguard because it would be extremely difficult for any judge to intervene. He said relabeling crimes would not change the behaviors of these offenders.

Recent polling shows that a majority of California expected voters support Prop. 47.

But what if public opinion shifts, and it fails to pass? Confronted with that question, Rev. Mathews paused and said that such failure would be a tragedy, but he believes everyone who has been supporting this initiative would continue to fight on until the injustice is righted.

As for Osuna, he has good reason to hold up his own story as proof positive that second chances matter. When he got arrested again at 35, he realized he would not last another prison term and asked his family, friends, and the community for help. On his behalf, they pleaded the court for leniency. Because the community strongly stood by him, the judge, instead of handing down another nine-year prison sentence to Osuna, decided to release him with a five-year probation.

That was six years ago. Since then, the former prisoner left the gang life for good, joining Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit vocational training program serving “high-risk, formerly gang-involved men and women.” He also holds down a job as a solar panel technician and job trainer in Los Angeles, and is an inspirational speaker to troubled youths around the country.