Freedom for Our Families

Last Tuesday night, around 300 people gathered at St. Columba Community Catholic Church to hold elected officials accountable for how they are spending county public safety funds, and ensure that jobs, not jails are the priority.

“Freedom for our families” was the title of the event as well as the chant led by community organizers, faith leaders, and survivors of incarceration throughout the night. The St. Columba chorus led the crowd in songs such as “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” and “This Little Light of Mine”, with added lines like “ain’t gonna let the prison complex turn me around”.

The event was organized by the Ella Baker Center, Oakland Community Organizations, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), Urban Peace Movement, and the Bay Area Black Worker Center.

Last fall, the Ella Baker Center, along with community members, faith leaders, and other grassroots organizations, urged county officials to prioritize jobs, not jails, books, not bars, and healthcare, not handcuffs when allocating the public safety realignment funds.

In years past, 70% of Alameda County's public safety realignment funding was going to the sheriff and less than 1% was going to community organizations. However, this year, the Jobs Not Jails campaign resulted in a directive from the Board of Supervisors’ to allocate 50% of funds to community-based organizations offering re-entry services. At Freedom for Our Families, organizers invited decision-makers on public safety to hear the community’s vision for how this money should be reinvested.

Among the public servants in attendance were District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, Supervisor Nate Miley, Public Defender Brendan Woods, Chief of Probation LaDonna Harris and Healthcare Services Director Alex Briscoe. They, along with community members, listened to formerly incarcerated individuals and family members of currently incarcerated people speak about the pain that mass incarceration had caused them.

Reverend Damita Harris spoke about her son’s experience with the criminal justice system, and how despite the fact that she is a reverend and a union leader and is used to speaking up and leading, she felt silenced and helpless. “I was shackled,” she said, comparing mass incarceration to slavery, with its racial effects and separation of families. Jason Ewing from Urban Peace Movement reflected on the difficulty of getting a job and moving on with life as usual after incarceration.

Organization leaders also presented research about how public safety realignment funds have been spent in the past, probation terms, and the ways that other counties have been implementing Prop 47 relief.

At the meeting’s conclusion, community leader John Jones turned to the elected officials and asked them if, given what they had heard, they would commit to several reforms.

Proposed reforms included partnering with the contributing organizations to engage the wider community in an RFP process for the new public safety realignment money, working with the District Attorney to create a more efficient Prop 47 reclassification process, convening a committee of community members and county experts to establish a Justice Reinvestment Fund, and reducing probation terms from 5 to 3 years.

The elected officials agreed to these requests, though some said they would like to continue the discussion about how to implement them. Supervisor Nate Miley commended the organizers of the event for putting pressure on them, saying “there is no change without agitation."

This marked a step towards victory for restorative and community-based justice, but the fight is not over. We, along with other advocates, will continue to work to make sure elected officials fulfill their promises.