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Bass Leads Criminal Justice Reform Panel in Los Angeles
By Jennifer Bihm, Contributing Writer
Published July 18, 2019

Karen Bass and members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime listen to testimony from formerly incarcerated individuals who gave ideas on how to better improve reentry programs (Courtesy photo)

 

Congresswoman Karen Bass on July 13, led a group of panelists who are members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime in a hearing on criminal justice reform at the FAME Renaissance Center in Los Angeles. Hundreds of witnesses gathered at the center to hear about problems individuals face inside and outside the prison system and also to hear viable solutions. Special guests included John Harriel, a facilitator of reentry program, 2nd Call, Susan Burton, co-founder of A New Way of Life, and Stanley Bailey, who served 36 years in prison under California’s old Three Strikes law, all giving testimony about their experiences within the criminal justice system.

“I’m really thankful to Karen Bass for holding this hearing, so that we can discuss women and their needs [upon reentry to society]. I know what it could mean to leave a prison and not have safety,” said Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life, a reentry program focused on helping women function post prison.

“I’ve visited 40 states and 36 prisons. When we talk about what women need when they are leaving; overwhelmingly, I saw women who were desperately trying to maintain their parental rights. I saw women who wanted a job but were worried about how they would be employed …”

Housing, jobs, reunification and support for those things are what the guests emphasized for Bass and the rest of the panelists who included Harriel, executive member of 2nd Call, also a reentry program, talked about the importance of having mentors and examples in the community of people living outside the world of crime. Not having that growing up he said, was instrumental in revolving door prison experience.

“Absolutely, I come from a dysfunctional environment,” said Harriel.

“I did not know that I had low self-esteem growing up. I had no idea that I wanted to commit suicide. I didn’t want to do it by my own hand, I wanted someone else to do it. When I think back, there were no men leading the way, putting on their boots and going to work everyday. I envisioned going to prison as a young man because in my community, going to prison was rewarded.”

Harrell said that the support of two members helped him get to where he is today; a superintendent in the building trades, a union member, a homeowner, and now, a mentor himself to other young men and women headed down his former path.

Hundreds gathered for Karen Bass and members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime talk about ways to improve the methods of reentry to society from prison. (Courtesy photo)

Bailey, a former drug addict, said that during his 36-year stay in a California prison on drug related charges, rehabilitation and other programs that help individuals earn their way out, were often not available to inmates in his situation.

“People with mental health issues make up a large part of the prison population,” he said.

“People who suffer are abused by both inmates and staff.”

Most people who have served a significant amount of time may not have family and friends left on the outside who can offer them support. He reemphasized the importance of housing and employment as keys to successful reentry to society.

“Most people know what a boat is and most people know where China is, but if you told them to get on a boat and go to China they would be at a loss. That’s what it’s like for people leaving prison.”

Bass said she is currently working on legislation focused on reentry services.

The idea, she said, is to develop a one stop center, a place where reentry services: job training, counseling, reunification, etc., are all inclusive.

“A one stop is just common sense,” Burton commented.

“There should be a place where you can get your ID, sign up for benefits, get connected to medical services, get transportation … a place where people can get their lives on track quickly.”

Criminal justice reform has long been a signature issue in Bass’ political career.

“Many of our criminal justice policies are good; they protect our loved ones and communities,” Bass said.

“At the same time, far too many of our laws are ineffective or do more harm than good.  I am committed to reforming criminal justice so that it is sensible, effective and consistent with our notions of equality and fairness.

Over-Criminalization, I am urging reforms that will improve criminal justice.  I believe we could drastically reduce prison overcrowding by repealing harsh mandatory minimums and reserving the toughest sentences for serious criminals who threaten public safety.  We should invest in community-oriented crime prevention and intervention efforts for struggling neighborhoods and at-risk youth.  In addition, we need to ensure that those who have paid their debt to society have reentry services and opportunities to live productive lives.”

Bass’ priorities include:

  • Identifying criminal justice policies that are discriminatory or counterproductive
  • Focusing resources on community-oriented services to help at-risk youth and neighborhoods
  • Advocating for reentry services to help ex-offenders become productive citizens

 

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