Above: Victoria Castillo was denied opportunities for employment on multiple occassions because of criminal charges she incurred more than a decade ago, as a minor growing up in Merced, California.(photo: Alyssa Castro)
Editor’s Note: Proposition 47 is a California ballot measure that, if approved by voters on November 4, will reclassify six non-violent felonies, including petty theft and drug possession, as misdemeanors. The reclassification would reduce sentences and would be applied retroactively, resulting in early releases for tens of thousands of prisoners. Money saved by the state from reduced prison costs would be spent on drug and mental health treatment services, education programs for at-risk youth, and crime victim services.
Victoria Castillo, 31, recently volunteered with the Merced Organizing Project, to phone bank in support of Prop. 47. A self-described “system kid,” Castillo said her childhood experiences growing up in Merced are what inspired her to join the campaign to support Prop. 47. The first-person story below is transcribed from an interview with Andres Reyes, editor of We’Ced, a youth-led community media project of NAM.
I grew up in a really bad environment; it was really abusive in every way imaginable. I ended being a system kid in ’96 – I was on probation, in group homes, juvenile hall, all of that… I was court schooled in Fresno and Madera. I exited the system in July 2001, and I’ve been on my own ever since.
When is Prison Appropriate? Central Valley Youth Weigh In
New America Media asked teenagers in Merced and in Fresno, Calfornia: When is incarceration a just punishment? And how should society deal with non-violent offenses and petty crimes?
Elizabeth Arteaga, 17, Merced: My dad actually got locked up when I was 10 years old. My mom told me he was stopped by police because they couldn’t see his license plate on his car. Then some other small offense from his past came up and he got sent to jail for a long time. The crimes that deserve incarceration are murder, serious drug offenses, rape and other sex offenses -- anything that is harmful to society.
Pengsu, 16, Fresno: When people commit minor crimes it’s often for survival, so society should provide education and chances to get back on their feet. You should be locked up if you murder, or plan to murder. Or when you sexually assault a child, or are a part of a terrorist attack.
Lisbeth Vazquez, 17, Merced: My friend once told me that when he was living in Delhi (a small town in Merced County) a few years ago, he and his family lived in a small house next to a barn… which was part of their rental. One day, the police found some illegal substances in the barn and his dad was sent to jail. It wasn’t even his fault because the owners of the [rental] property had the illegal substances in the barn, and my friend and his family had no clue. Our society should handle [petty crimes] with fines and classes or therapy, instead of jailing people.
Kody Stoebig, 23, Visalia: My uncle has been in and out of prison for most of my life. It might seem unfair, but in his case he repeatedly broke the same laws and his punishment was fitting. People who commit violent crimes or crimes that endanger the health or well-being of another should be put in prison.
Donna Lipscomb, 19, Merced: I believe all sex crimes of any type should be punished with incarceration. Also murder, serious gang crimes, domestic abuse and major fraud, should require jail time. Crimes such as drug possession, petty theft and prostitution should be… dealt with, instead of being pushed away in jail.
Rose Chang, 14, Fresno: I think it is appropriate to lock someone up for using violence against another person, kidnapping, or rape.
Maihnia Lee, 22, Fresno: Citizens should be imprisoned when they have caused physical harm to another person, with the severity of the sentence contingent on the severity of the crime. Petty crimes should be penalized with fines and community service.
Asia Navarro, 17, Merced: I consider petty offenses to be things like small time drug dealing or drug abuse. They’re not really harming anyone but themselves -- they’re sick! Also speeding or when people steal cars for joyriding or, as they say, “G riding.” We should handle these offenses by sending people to rehab or anger management or some other kind of therapy. It would be more useful than just sending them to jail because often times people come out worse.
Jane Carretero, 16, Fresno: I believe people should be locked up when they pose a harm to the community or they cause damage or harm to someone in the community. Petty crime [offenders] should be sentenced to community hours.
Bryson Rule, 18, Merced: Intention to murder, gang violence, drug abuse, hate crimes and any crimes that intentionally hurt another person mentally or physically -- these crimes deserve jail in my opinion. Theft without murder or injury, accidental murder and self-defense -- these are things I would consider petty offenses. We as a society should do a better job of supporting youth who go through these things and provide some sort of therapy for them, perhaps along with a fine.
Sarah Vang, 16, Fresno: In order to get locked up the crimes should be rape, murder, treason, kidnapping, and larceny. Hurting someone and causing pain should get you locked up. The discipline for a petty crime should be jail for a small amount of time, or community service.
Now, I’m 31 and I advocate for victims of law-enforcement misconduct. I’m not anti-law, but [law-enforcement shouldn’t] abuse their power.
When you get incarcerated, more than likely if you’re not a violent person or a hardcore criminal, you’re going to come out with a negative mentality. It’s dangerous being inside of a jail. It costs a lot of money to house all those people and give them care. We should be turning it around -- we could get them help; we could get them an education, because more people getting educated means less people getting incarcerated.
At an [event] over the summer, I heard MOP (Merced Organizing Project) organizer Crissy Gallardo talking about Prop. 47. Once I found out what it was, I was all for that, [so] I volunteered to phone bank.
I was really interesting phone-banking – I got upset, and I got emotional, and I got really happy. I got yes’s, and I got people telling me their stories, and I told them my story. You’re on the phone, not face to face, but you’re still talking to people in Merced and the Central Valley, so that was really awesome. I spoke to people that could relate – they’d tell me they’ve been there, or they’ve had a loved one or a relative that has been through this, or is still going through it.
Sometimes you get the people that are on the fence. The Sheriff’s Union is campaigning pretty heavily against Prop. 47 and I feel like there’s been some misinformation about [it]. I hear some people say it’s going to let child molesters and murderers out of jail and that’s just not true. Then you have some folks who flat out don’t care. They say they don’t want those people out on the street and we should lock them all up and that’s just how they feel. They’re entitled to their own opinion, [but] I just don’t agree.
I can relate to having a past [criminal] record work against me. Even [though] I am no longer in trouble, I’ve been denied [things] based on my juvenile record. I got denied a job at Target. I [got] fingerprinted so I could care for children as a job, but I got denied. I mean, it’s good to make sure children are safe, but I was trying to care for my cousin’s children – I was already watching them and [my cousin] wanted me to get paid for watching them. I couldn’t get cleared. I had to find three people to give me references, and I couldn’t find them. I gave up on that, and couldn’t watch my cousin’s kids. [My juvenile record] happened 13 years ago, and it’s still biting me in the butt.
I’ve also seen people that have been to prison or have been in jail and they come out, turn their life around, but they can’t find jobs. They can’t go to school because they have a felony – they can’t get financial aid, so they can’t afford to get an education. I don’t think it’s fair, especially for minor things, which is what Prop. 47 will turn around.