How the Undeniable Force of Family Won Unprecedented Change in California’s Justice System – from the Streets to the Courts

Editor's Note:

This week, we have seen a historic shift in the California justice system - one that would not have been possible without directly impacted individuals and families being the sources of solutions that will make it possible for their loved ones to come home and so that more people aren't harmed in the same way.

Last Sunday, Governor Brown signed into law a slew of reforms that would alter the criminal justice system from police contact to prison sentences. SB 1391 ends the transfer of youth under 15 into the adult court system, removing their exposure to life sentences. SB 1437 amends the felony murder rule so that the punishment is more commensurate to the crime. SB 1421 makes police officer records transparent, especially when it involves deadly and serious use of force incidents, and SB 1393 gives powers to judges to strike 5 year enhancements on serious felonies. While there are champion advocacy groups set up in Sacramento, complete with lobbyists, offices, and accessibility, the real, undeniable force that brought these changes came from directly impacted individuals and families. It was their experiences that were no longer just the ‘storyfillers’ empty of analysis, but instead — their pain, the harm done to them and our communities, their call to act – these were the very sources of solutions.

Graphic: AD Avila

At about 8:30PM on Sunday night, we got the call that Governor Brown signed SB 1391 – a bill that would stop the transfer of 14 and 15 year olds to adult court. Within minutes of SB 1391 being signed by Governor Brown, the first phone call we made was to Diandra. Her voice cracked and I heard the sound of air from a car ride. She said they’ve been waiting for a ‘good thing’ for so long. The last time she and her sister held their little brother was when he was 15. He’s now almost 22 years old, a young man, far from the small boy who around the time of his arrest was living in his grandmother’s garage so that he was kept away from the domestic violence in his mother’s home. Since then, he’s gotten his high school diploma inside the hall, ministers to other people, and inspires even the older men inside the jail. More than 20 of his fellow detainees wrote character letters of how much this young man had inspired them inside the jail. Now if he stays on the path he’s in, he can have a shot at coming home by age 25.

Earlier this year, Diandra traveled back and forth to Sacramento along with many De-Bug families who spoke with legislators on these bills. On one trip, I drove up with Yolie, whose husband Frankie was sentenced to LWOP under the felony murder rule; Jalissa, a 15 year old who spoke at sentencing for her father that reduced it from 75 years to 38 years; Kim and Sharon, whose sons AJ and Phillip were killed by San Jose police, and were waiting for over 3 years for answers from SJPD; and Sajid, a public defender who advocated for 14 year old Christian who was tried as an adult. That was just 1 van. We had 2 other vans of families with varying experiences – but the common touchpoint was the criminal justice system. That day we spent almost 8 hours in hearings, speaking on our stories, and going back and forth with legislative staffers of why these bills were important to change the trajectory in our lives. The exhaustion of the families after a long day wasn’t just about the 4 hour drive back and forth, or the back to back meetings – but it was an emotional exhaustion of having to tell the story of your loved one three or four times, having to show why legislation can change the course – sometimes more for others and not even your own. Veronica, Christian’s mom who came that day, was red and in tears after every meeting. While SB 1391 could not help Christian now, having to remember how painful that time in their lives were was tiring.

For the families whose loved ones were killed by police, all meetings I was at resulted in families breaking down in tears. But it wasn’t just at these legislative meetings. It was in the coalition calls with statewide partners – especially in some of them where there were the difficult conversations of concessions that were made and who was making them. They had to pour through their experiences to share why they felt a certain concession was wrong or inversely, why provisions of the bill were so meaningful. “We know – just because we talk to one another as families – that there are certain officers who are involved in similar incidents,” Kim said on the way back from Sacramento. “SB 1421 makes it so people know we don’t make this shit up. We’re not crazy.”

I remember hearings where waiting in line for the 5 seconds you get to say your name, where you’re from, and why you support that bill was like hot water bubbles forming at the bottom of a pot. There’s this expected behavior of how you’re supposed to comment at these hearings – it’s based out of time management. But when your loved one is killed by police, or when you’ve experienced the type of harm by the criminal justice system that’s taken away your childhood, all that decorum is nothing. Each of the families would take their time to say their loved one’s name, sometimes their story, and it would piss off some of the legislators, but I think it would also give the ones who were championing the bills more courage. So families from LA, Bakersfield, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, Stockton – brought by orgs like us, Youth Justice Coalition, the Love Not Blood Campaign, and L.E.A.N. -- we weren’t just there to change the law. We were there to change the process of what it means to be heard.

It is these same families who helped write parts of the bills, spoke on their experiences, met with legislators, participated in coalition calls, organized the larger community for support, who will make sure these bills have the teeth and the legs they need to work. Legislation was the lever – the families and communities are here to pull it.

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