November 11, 2015
LOS ANGELES – Diana Zuniga, 28, has been in and out of California prisons for 24 years of her life. She’s been visiting incarcerated family members. Her father is scheduled for release in four to five years. Her uncle is serving 35 years to life.
“All of my grandmother’s sons are incarcerated,” says Zuniga, who grew up in Pico Rivera, just southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
“I think for a while incarceration was kind of a natural, normal thing in my life. And then when I was about 12, my uncle got incarcerated for life with the three-strikes law. And at that point, it just triggered something in me. I didn’t understand how this could be the circumstance of someone that I loved. Then I realized that this was the circumstance for a lot of people.”
Today, Zuniga works fulltime as a statewide coordinator for the nonprofit prison reform organization Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Founded in 2003, CURB’s mission is to stop state prison construction and expansion, reduce the number of people in jail and redirect the savings into alternatives to incarceration.
With a fulltime staff of two, Zuniga based in Los Angeles and Lizzie Buchen in Oakland, CURB takes a unique approach to prison and criminal justice reform. They chase the money and make prison construction and expansion a budget issue.
CURB argues that mandatory minimum sentencing laws, like California’s three-strikes initiative, which levies longer sentences against offenders with prior convictions, create an emotionally and financially expensive culture of recidivism.
Because of their statewide presence, CURB has grown into a coalition of more than 70 criminal justice reform groups that cooperate on the issues that matter to them individually and collectively.
“That is where the power of CURB comes from,” says Buchen. “I think that’s what makes CURB so unique, is that we’re a network of grassroots organizations. We can help unite people who are maybe in different parts of the state or normally work on different issues, and then if there’s one given issue that will connect them together, then we can facilitate that.”
In early December, a coalition of advocacy groups, including CURB and No New SF Jails, protested a proposal to build a new jail in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice. The protestors, who attended the meeting and began chanting once the measure was called, were successful in delaying the vote.
“It was a really powerful day,” says Buchen. “We had a hundred people. We shutdown the meeting. There were banners. There was just so much energy, and it was just so successful in so many ways.”
On Tuesday, December 15th, just shy of two weeks after their protest, the Board of Supervisors voted against allocating $215 million to replace the old jail. Buchen believes that the earlier protest, as well as their presence at Tuesday’s vote, bolstered supervisors against the new jail and encouraged those on the fence to vote no.
Prison reform is receiving national attention thanks, in part, to President Obama’s outspoken stance against harsh sentencing laws and his historic visit to El Reno federal penitentiary earlier this year. According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, states around the country are examining their corrections budgets and focusing on initiatives that might slow or stop the growth of prison populations.
Here in California, CURB monitors the state corrections budget with a team of volunteers. After reviewing the proposed numbers, they formulate a plan for the type of alternative legislation and policies they want to pitch to elected officials in hopes of getting their initiatives authored and moved through the budget process.
Senate Bill 219, the alternative custody program, is a policy that CURB, along with Misty Rojo, a co-director at Justice Now and Senator Carol Liu, who represents California’s 25th district, were able to get into the state’s 2015-2016 budget. The program allowed female inmates who are primary caregivers the opportunity to participate in an alternative to custody in state prison so they can continue to raise their children.
Zuniga, who did much of the legwork on the program, said that while getting it through the budget was a success, the funding wasn’t mandated. That means counties can choose to participate in the program or not. Most counties have opted out.
The social and political landscape of prison reform is complex. In some cases, state efforts to reduce the prison population have, in a sense, created more challenges for CURB.
Public safety and realignment, passed in 2011 in response to a Supreme Court ruling, provides that people with non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual crimes, serve their sentences in county jails rather than state prisons. There, inmates are eligible to receive four days good credit for every two days served, in effect, cutting the time they serve in half.
“That resulted in the 58 counties getting funding and being able to decide whether or not that funding would go towards community based alternatives to incarceration or go to the Sheriff’s department and law enforcement. What we’ve seen is that the majority of it has gone to law enforcement,” says Zuniga.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, $400 million was made available to counties in 2011-2012, as a result of realignment. Just two years later, with inmate populations down, counties received more than $1 billion.
Zuniga believes that some state lawmakers have had good intentions for these funds, expecting that counties would use the monies for alternative services, like mental healthcare, job training or substance abuse treatment. But, say Zuniga, this hasn’t been realized at the local level.
Another measure reducing California’s inmate population, prop 47, was overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2014. The measure redefined some nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies, and will keep low-level offenders from serving time in jail. Not only did this apply to future convictions, but inmates already serving time for crimes covered in the proposal could ask for resentencing. An estimated 4,800 state prisoners will be eligible for release.
Critics of prop 47, like Los Angeles County Sherriff Jim McDonnell, whose jails were put under federal oversight in August 2015 due to chronic inmate abuses, blame the recent rise in crime on these early releases. Prison reform advocates, however, claim that crimes rates are up nationwide, not just in California, and that the blowback by law enforcement is because prop 47 could potentially effect their bottom line.
Despite the reduction in California’s prison population, the state corrections budget has not seen a significant decrease. The 2015-2016 budget for the CDCR is $10 billion, similar to previous years. The state also plans to add 2,400 more dorm beds by the middle of next year, and $2.2 billion in bond revenue funds are available to build county jails, which will add an additional 14,000 beds throughout the state.
“It’s unrealistic,” says Zuniga. “Jail reduction, prison reduction is happening…Yet our state is prioritizing funding going into new jails or expanding existing prisons when they’re not equally prioritizing infrastructure within our local communities to be built up and help these folks come back home.”
Carl M. Cannon, author and Washington bureau chief of RealClearPolitics.com, sees the issue from another perspective. “You’re going to have prison construction money even if you’re lowering the incarceration rate,” says Cannon, adding that he doesn’t see that as a threat to prison reform.
“I see the threat as having politicians who are too skittish on this issue. Reforming sentencing laws is a big part of it, but there are other things going on. You have a prison guards union that has real political power. That’s an internal Democratic Party debate, really, because they believe in public employee unions. What public employee unions want is more money spent in their sector. I don’t care if they’re teachers, firemen or prison guards.”
Even as the debate rages, CURB remains focused on it’s core mission. They send member organizations annual de-carceration report cards that grade counties on reform issues. They provide workshops on how to write letters to the editor in effort to raise public and press awareness on the issue. CURB also uses its massive email list to mobilize people for rallies and protests.
“There’s not a lot of CURB staff, but they’re good at what they do,” says Vonya Quarles, co-founder and executive director at Starting Over Inc. Quarles, who was previously incarcerated and is now a criminal defense attorney, also said that CURB has been beating the prison reform-drum long before it became a popular bipartisan issue.
For Zuniga, whose uncle might never be released from prison because of the three-strikes law, the battle continues. “That’s pretty much what brought me to interacting with this particular issue,” she says, “and makes me feel I want to keep fighting and that I have to keep fighting.”