By Colby Tibbet, the kNOw Youth Media
FRESNO– Community leaders, residents and state officials met Thursday night in West Fresno at Westside Church of God to talk about Proposition 47 and the flaws in the criminal justice system in Fresno County and across California.
The Regional Town Hall meeting, organized by Faith in Community (FIC) and People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO) California, is the second of four meetings aimed at bringing Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) officials into local communities to discuss Prop. 47, alternatives to incarceration, and local issues such as bail stacking in Fresno County.
“It is my prayer tonight that we will work together, we will collaborate together, and come up with outreach and services that will help those in community or those that will need our help,”
said Rev. Paul Binion, in his opening statement.
The presenters included BSCC chair Linda Penner, Fresno County Presiding Judge Jon Conklin, Chief Probation Officer Rick Chavez, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims. Community members also gave personal testimony on their experiences with Prop. 47 and rehabilitation.
“With Prop 47, the second chance my husband always deserved is now possible,” said Laura Denies, a member of Faith in Community, who came up to the stage as a community testimonial.
Denies spoke about how her rehabilitation process was more of a burden, with twice weekly drug testing and bimonthly court meetings. Fulfilling these responsibilities without transportation while also trying to hold down a job was challenging. Although he had a similar drug felony to hers, her husband was not given the same rehabilitation program. Denies believes this was because of his race.
“My husband was not given the same opportunity as I was, and I truly believe it was because I am white and he is black,” she said.
Denies detailed how her husband was sent to jail several times instead of being given rehabilitation. The felony charge also made it hard to find work or a reasonable apartment.
“A true second chance should not set us up to fail,” Denies said.
Linda Penner, BSCC chair, talked about how corrections officials are doing their best, and said that California is a national leader in reforming the criminal justice system.
“California is beginning to lead the way and to move an entire country toward shifts in terms of incarceration, in terms of the way we manage addicted individuals within our community and the mental health population in our community,” said Penner. “While we are not perfect, I have participated in national meetings and I hear that rest of the country is looking to us for leadership.”
Fresno County’s policy of “bail stacking” was also discussed. JePhal White of Faith in Community gave an example of if an individual is pulled over for a DUI, and happens to have an open-container and no seatbelt, the person’s bail will be a culmination of all those charges.
Fresno County Judge Conklin was asked on the spot to get rid of the bail stacking policy in the County. He replied this is not up to him, but instead something voters would have to change.
Claudia Gonzalez, a member of the Merced Organizing Project (MOP), gave personal testimony about how rehabilitation, not incarceration, helped turn her life around.
“Only 5 years ago, I was sitting in a jail cell, looking at hard time behind prison walls,” she said. “I was actually looking at a life sentence.”
Gonzalez spoke about how she had lived a lifestyle of gangs and drugs, was in and out of jail and at the time felt she lived a life society deemed her to have. She eventually attended community college courses in Merced and had mentors who gave her a chance. She said building a new path for herself was “a long and hard process.”
“I finally found redemption and transformed my life,” she said. “But the biggest factor in the 180-degree change was the fact that people gave me second opportunities. Without these chances I would not be who I am today, a college graduate.”
The next event is scheduled for April 30 at Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church at 6 p.m.
About the author: Colby Tibbet is a writer based in Fresno, CA. He writes on homelessness and community health, and tells the stories of the unheard in the Central Valley.