by California ChangeLawyers
News Brief is the newsletter for vigilant optimist. A curated collection of social justice stories, delivered to your inbox every Wednesday night. Thanks for reading!
by California ChangeLawyers
News Brief is the newsletter for vigilant optimist. A curated collection of social justice stories, delivered to your inbox every Wednesday night. Thanks for reading!
#ChangeLawyer This tattooed Texas DA represents the future of criminal justice
Mark Gonzalez was speeding across the South Texas plains last year when a police officer pulled him over, he said. He had a routine for such stops.
Gonzalez cut the engine and stretched his tattoo-covered arms out the window to show he wasn’t a threat. He knew that when the officer ran his information through a law enforcement database, he would pop up as a member of a motorcycle club that police consider a gang, though members call it a social club.
“I’m the newly elected district attorney of Nueces County, and I’m going to come back as a gang member,” Gonzalez recalls telling the officer.
The officer let him go.
The improbable ascent of the self-styled “Mexican biker lawyer” to a top law enforcement job two years ago speaks to the profound change sweeping dozens of local prosecutors offices across the country. From deep on the Gulf Coast to Denver, Chicago and Philadelphia, voters in recent years have been turning to a new wave of district attorneys pushing a boldly liberal agenda.
They are freezing the use of the death penalty, decriminalizing marijuana possession, diverting low-level offenders to classes and treatment instead of jail, seeking less severe sentences, and vowing to aggressively prosecute police-involved shootings.
In a field that is 95 percent white and overwhelmingly male, many are minorities, women or gays and hail from unlikely backgrounds, such as civil rights work or the public defender’s office.
This new breed of prosecutors is upending a traditional tough-on-crime focus by emphasizing a holistic approach over conviction rates and long sentences.
Over the summer, Wesley Bell, a black City Council member in Ferguson, Mo., and former public defender, unseated Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor who didn’t bring charges against the police officer who shot Michael Brown in 2014. Bell’s victory was powered by anger over the way McCulloch handled the case.
Gonzalez wore brown cowboy boots and drove a large pickup truck when he arrived at the Nueces County Courthouse on a Monday in mid-October, but otherwise it’s hard to imagine someone further from the image of a Texas lawman.
There’s the biker affiliation. A “Not Guilty” tattoo splashed across his chest that celebrates his victories as a defense attorney. And an office decorated with a large and dramatic portrait of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.
Beyond style, what has made Gonzalez a polarizing figure in Nueces County and brought him national attention is the substance of the changes he has been trying to implement.
Gonzalez said he has sought to charge defendants less punitively and seek shorter sentences. He is diverting people charged with a handful of misdemeanors, such as marijuana possession, from the courts, instead asking that a fine be imposed. The money goes to funding positions in the district attorney’s office and charity. Those who can’t afford to pay can perform community service.
He said he has opened case files to defense attorneys, giving them every shred of evidence that might help their clients. And he has signed a letter rebuking former attorney general Jeff Sessions for instructing federal prosecutors to seek stiffer sentences.
When asked to explain his approach, Gonzalez jumped from a chair in his office and began rummaging through boxes that remain packed nearly two years after his election. He was looking for a photo that is every bit as important to his career as the law degree that hangs nearby — his mug shot.
He has blown up and framed the grainy photo. An 18-year-old Gonzalez stares out, his lips pursed as if trying to suppress a smile. It was taken shortly after he was booked for driving while intoxicated in nearby Kleberg County, following a party in 1999.
“Everyone needs to always remember what they’ve been through, how you were treated and how it affects you,” Gonzales said. “How many DAs have a mug shot?”
When it came time for his court appearance on the DWI charge, his family had little money and knew no lawyers, so Gonzalez said he brought his mother to court. “Mijo,’’ she told him, “plead guilty and they will be nice to you.”
Gonzalez said he was furious and inspired. No man in his family had been to college, but he saw a path.
“I said: ‘You know what? I’m going to see if I can be a lawyer,’ ” Gonzalez said. “If I hadn’t gotten that charge, I think I would be in the oil field. It was like a light.”
It wasn’t easy following through on the epiphany he had in court, Gonzalez said. His mom pushed him to go to college, but he struggled there and then at law school in San Antonio. He failed the bar exam twice before passing on the third attempt.
Over the next decade, he built a legal practice, often representing low-income Latinos in minor cases. He was paid in cash, but also with shrimp, a treadmill and oil changes.
By 2015, business was thriving, but Matt Manning, Gonzalez’s then-law partner and now chief deputy in the district attorney’s office, said he found Gonzalez in a mood for change one day: “He said, ‘Bro, the way it’s working, it’s not working.’ ”
Gonzalez thought defendants were routinely overcharged by authorities who wanted leverage to obtain plea deals. The then-district attorney’s office also faced accusations of hiding exculpatory evidence.
Gonzalez launched a long-shot bid to unseat a fellow Democrat in the 2016 primary. To many people’s surprise, Gonzalez won and then squeaked by a Republican in the general election that November.
“The problem with a lot of politicians is they play bigger than what they are,” said Bryan Gomez, a member of the Calaveras. “Mark didn’t roll his sleeves down over his tattoos — he rolled them up. He wasn’t ashamed of what he was.”
Suddenly, a man who once was arrested was running a 75-person prosecutor’s office with a budget of more than $4 million and promising major changes. He was sworn in while wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey.
His hardscrabble upbringing and his brush with the justice system make him a lot more like the defendants he faces in court than the line of prosecutors who have come before him in Nueces County. He’s been to jail, dealt with probation and tried to get a job with a conviction on his record.
He said he’s aware of the weight of those burdens and is careful when to apply them.
“Pretty much everyone that comes through here is the same — at least similar — to me,” Gonzalez said.
Story by Washington Post >
More of This How legal nonprofits helped the Central American caravan’s LGBTQ contingent
Al Otro Lado, featured in the article below, has received a ChangeLawyer Fellowship for 2019!
Joe Rivano Barros flew into Mexico City on Nov. 6 with a vague mission.
Barros, 26, had been sent by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit. His brief: help the Central American refugees trudging north to the U.S.-Mexico border.
He soon discovered, though, that the caravan was not a united, cohesive, one-size-fits all outfit. These refugees come from various nations — Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala — and represent numerous ethnicities and religions.
And then there’s “La Comunidad,” the self-bestowed name of about 80 LGBTQ people.
“They were fleeing violence because of their gender identity,” Barros said. “They were also facing violence in the caravan itself.”
Under federal law, people seeking asylum in the U.S. must be able to show they fled their homes because their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social order led them to fear persecution.
“Each case is going to be different,” said Cristian Sánchez, 28, an immigration lawyer for RAICES. “I’ve seen some strong cases.”
Sánchez and another RAICES lawyer flew into Tijuana last week to interview La Comunidad’s asylum seekers. They had help from other agencies — Al Otro Lado, a U.S.-Mexican legal aid group; World Relief, an international aid society founded by American evangelicals; and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a New Mexican group that advises immigrants on the law.
On Friday, Al Otro Lado joined a lawsuit arguing that Washington has a “Turnback Policy,” illegally restricting the number of asylum-seekers.
Crystal, the trans woman from Honduras, understood that the asylum process was rigorous and, even if she were admitted to the U.S., bias against LGBTQ people is a fact of American life.
“But the difference is that in Honduras gangs grab us and prostitute us out,” she said. “In the United States, there’s definitely discrimination but Americans won’t round us up and prostitute us.”
She left Honduras on Oct. 23, carrying only the clothes on her back, a toothbrush and toothpaste. The 12-day journey to Mexico City was accomplished on foot and via the occasional hitched ride. Her feet blistered, her face burned, her cloths were drenched by rain.
Crystal, a chef who specializes in Italian and French cuisine, consoled herself by imagining a new life in the U.S.
“I want to work and buy my own house and help my mom,” she said. “I would like to own my own business.”
Crystal holds onto that dream at night, lying across a double bed with three others, all awaiting the U.S. government’s decision.
Story by San Diego Union Tribune >
From the Bench Judge notes “sad irony” of men deciding women's rights as he strikes down abortion law
A federal judge on Tuesday blocked a Mississippi state law that sought to forbid most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, writing a sharply worded opinion with implications for states weighing similar measures.
The law made exceptions only for medical emergencies or cases in which there's a "severe fetal abnormality." There were no exceptions for incidents of rape or incest.
Judge Carlton Reeves, district judge for the Southern District of Mississippi who was appointed by President Obama, wrote that the law "unequivocally" infringes upon a woman's 14th Amendment due process rights and defies Supreme Court precedents.
"The state chose to pass a law it knew was unconstitutional to endorse a decadeslong campaign, fueled by national interest groups, to ask the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade," Reeves wrote. "This court follows the commands of the Supreme Court and the dictates of the United States Constitution, rather than the disingenuous calculations of the Mississippi Legislature.”
Furthermore, he called the Legislature's professed interest in women's health "pure gaslighting," pointing to evidence of the state's high infant and maternal mortality rates.
"Its leaders are proud to challenge Roe but choose not to lift a finger to address the tragedies lurking on the other side of the delivery room, such as high infant and maternal mortality rates," he wrote in a footnote.
He also noted what he called the "sad irony" of men like him deciding women's reproductive rights, recalling what the lawyer for Jane Roe argued to the Supreme Court in 1971: "A pregnancy to a woman is perhaps one of the most determinative aspects of her life.”
"The fact that men, myself included, are determining how women may choose to manage their reproductive health is a sad irony not lost on the court," he wrote.
"As a man, who cannot get pregnant or seek an abortion, I can only imagine the anxiety and turmoil a woman might experience when she decides whether to terminate her pregnancy through an abortion. Respecting her autonomy demands that this statute be enjoined."
Story by CNN >
Less of This Inmates fight California’s wildfires, but rarely get hired once released
Root & Rebound, featured in the article below, has received a ChangeLawyer Fellowship for 2019!
As smoke from the Camp Fire drifted over the San Francisco Bay Area this week, clouding the air around Amika Mota’s home in Oakland, she was reminded of her time in prison.
While serving a sentence for vehicular manslaughter, Ms. Mota, 41, began putting out car, structure and wildfires in Central California in 2012, one of roughly 4,000 inmate firefighters in the state. Through firefighting, the state tries to rehabilitate prisoners while providing a critical — and cost-effective — line of defense against a growing threat of natural disaster.
Ms. Mota found it to be a “transformative” experience that was a welcome and productive reprieve from prison’s widespread drugs, violence and abuse. She said she would have “loved” to make firefighting her career.
Yet she remembers one lesson that was drilled into her head: After you are released, do not expect to be a firefighter anymore — criminals will not get hired. So when she was released on parole several years ago, she did not apply.
Ms. Mota does believe she learned invaluable skills in the program that she has translated into a career helping other former prisoners at the Young Women’s Freedom Center, a nonprofit group in San Francisco.
But since she was released from prison, Ms. Mota said, she also thinks about how, year after year, the wildfires seem to grow stronger. She thinks about how, on average, inmate firefighters are paid $2 per day, and another $1 per hour when fighting active fires. She thinks about how six inmate firefighters have died since 1983, according to the state, and how, ultimately, she hears about so many who, like her, are discouraged from applying or are barred from being firefighters because of their criminal records.
“I also begin to really look at the injustice of what it looks like to be this massive labor force for the state of California that’s getting paid pennies on the dollar,” she said. “We should be doing a lot more to make sure that folks are re-entering in a positive way.”
California relies on prisoners to fight wildfires more than any other state.
The program has increasingly drawn scrutiny from criminal justice reform advocates, who have called it one of the most striking examples of undercompensated prison labor.
Once they are released from prison, inmates find it difficult to join the ranks of professional firefighters, said Katherine Katcher, the founder and executive director of Root and Rebound, a nonprofit group that helps people with criminal histories re-enter society. Some former inmates, like Ms. Mota, don’t bother applying, Ms. Katcher said. Some fire departments also bar people with certain criminal backgrounds from becoming firefighters, she said.
This year, California legislators debated a bill that would have directed local agencies to, in some cases, not let criminal history be a reason to deny certification. Instead, legislators scaled it down, deciding instead to pass a bill that would collect data on people’s being denied.
For Ms. Katcher, the initiatives are not enough.
“Our state has the opportunity to improve its laws to do better,” she said. “It’s not just about saying a program is rehabilitative. That’s just a word. Do the right thing.”
Story by NY Times >
More of This How to stop criminalizing homelessness
For Anubis Daugherty, 24, who spent six years living on the streets of San Francisco, avoiding the police was a constant struggle. “I was cited all the time, from the day I was homeless to the day I wasn’t,” he said.
That was one of the reasons he was eager to canvass and make phone calls for Proposition C, a ballot measure that taxes big businesses to fund more services, shelter beds, and housing in the city. Passed by voters last week, it could generate an estimated $300 million per year.
Daugherty, who later did street outreach through Larkin Street Youth Services, hopes that Prop C could hasten a shift in San Francisco away from policing and criminalizing homeless people and toward long-term solutions.
So does Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, which led the campaign for Prop C. “San Francisco has approached this primarily through a police response, and moving people from block to block, and that’s been a complete failure,” she told The Appeal. “That’s exacerbated homelessness.”
Despite its reputation as a progressive stronghold, San Francisco has more than 30 quality of life ordinances that can be used to sanction homeless people.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty has tracked laws criminalizing homelessness in 187 cities nationwide. Between 2006 and 2016, bans on camping in those cities increased by 69 percent, and sit/lie bans increased by 52 percent. Even if a homeless person doesn’t face prosecution or jail time, citations themselves are dangerous, explained Eric Tars, the center’s senior attorney. “Whether it’s an actual arrest, or a ticket and a fine that an individual can’t pay, so it’s likely to turn into a bench warrant and an arrest down the road, it’s still a barrier in the way of that individual getting out of homelessness,” he said.
The push to “clean up” homelessness in San Francisco has intensified, advocates say, with the influx of wealthy tech workers, some of whom have shown open contempt for homeless people.
In October, the San Francisco public defender’s office filed a series of challenges to prosecutions for sleeping on the sidewalk or in public. Those came in response to a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of six homeless people who challenged Idaho laws against sleeping on public property. The court declared such laws a violation of Eighth Amendment protections from cruel and unusual punishment if they are enforced against people who have no other place to sleep.
After the Ninth Circuit decision and the challenges from the public defender’s office, the district attorney’s office said it would no longer prosecute street sleeping, a misdemeanor offense, unless the person has been offered housing and refused. “Which is essentially saying we’re not going to prosecute these cases anymore,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi told The Appeal, “and we haven’t seen those since.”
Max Szabo, a spokesman for District Attorney George Gascón, told The Appeal that without offering shelter, prosecuting such cases is “not only unconstitutional, it’s inhumane and ineffective.”
Prop C will most likely face a court challenge in the months ahead, but advocates say it could make a difference if the money comes through. “We know that this is going to fund all of the things the mayor has been wanting to do that she hasn’t had the funding to do,” Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness said, adding that she hopes it also brings a deeper shift. “We cannot ticket or jail our way out of homelessness,” she said.
Story by the Appeal >
Second Chances Former inmates facing deportation place their hope on Jerry Brown
When Borey Ai walked out of prison after serving nearly 20 years for the murder of a woman during a robbery, he was stunned to see immigration agents waiting to take him into custody.
Ai, who is now 37, was born in a Thai refugee camp before coming to the United States at age 4. His parents had fled Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime and eventually settled in California’s Central Valley.
Now, he faces deportation to a country that he doesn’t consider home.
Ai is one of about 20 Southeast Asian immigrants who are seeking pardons in the final weeks of Gov. Jerry Brown’s term, hoping for a grant of mercy that will allow them to stay in the United States.
“It’s a recognition that people can, and do, change—even after committing terrible crimes,” Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown, said in a statement. “It’s also a recognition of the radical and unprecedented sentencing increases and prison building boom of the 80s and beyond as well as the diminished role of parole as a vital ingredient in California’s system of sentencing and rehabilitative process.”
“It really ties in with Brown’s attitude toward criminal justice,” said Anoop Prasad, an attorney who represents a group of Southeast Asian immigrants seeking pardons. “He realizes that California made major mistakes, and he was partly responsible and is trying to walk it back.”
Ai, who is known as “Peejay,” is one of about 2,000 Cambodian immigrants throughout the country who are currently facing deportation. Prasad is part of a national campaign to assist Cambodians and other Southeast Asian immigrants from Laos and Vietnam whose communities have been targeted in recent immigration raids.
Many of those applying for pardons have never been to their home countries and say that, although they aren’t American citizens, they are culturally American.
In California’s governor, these immigrants hope they have found a politician who is sympathetic to their situation, even for some with serious criminal convictions, Prasad said.
Ai’s parents witnessed the murders of their family members in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s reign. They escaped across the border into Thailand, where they lived in a camp with thousands of other refugees. That’s where Ai was born.
They eventually settled in Stockton, living among other Southeast Asian refugees in a community with few jobs, high poverty and rampant crime. It was a hard place to begin a new life for his parents, he said, particularly because they were still traumatized from Cambodia.
“I grew up in dysfunction,” Ai said. “My parents were so traumatized. A new country, a new culture. I never had a childhood.”
He spent about 19 years in prison for the crime. During that time, Ai began volunteering and participating in programs aimed at rehabilitation. He trained as a counselor, learning tools to help others struggling with trauma and violence.
After the parole board granted him freedom, he was released from San Quentin State Prison in November of 2016.
“I had job offers, I had goals, people who I wanted to meet,” Ai said.
Instead, he spent 18 months in immigration detention. He applied for a pardon, hoping that Brown would wipe away his conviction and allow him to remain in the United States.
The parole board has approved Ai’s pardon application. His case now goes to the California Supreme Court and, if approved, to the governor. Brown has often announced clemency decisions just before Christmas, but migrant advocates are hopeful that he may make his decisions earlier this year, before more people are deported.
Story by Marshall Project >
Funding Opportunity Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund
Administered by the National Women’s Law Center Fund, the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund connects those who experience sexual misconduct including assault, harassment, abuse and related retaliation in the workplace or in trying to advance their careers with legal and public relations assistance.
Apply here >
Job Opportunity Asian Americans Advancing Justice hiring Worker’s Rights and Housing Rights attorneys
Job Opportunity OneJustice Pro Bono and Immigrant Lawyer, Healthy Nonprofits Program Director, Pro Bono Justice Program Director
Since 2007, OneJustice has developed and launched a variety of effective projects with possibilities of replication during the Justice Bus Project, Rural Justice Collaborative (RJC), IMPACT LA, Executive Fellows Program, and Nonprofit Management Consulting.
Apply here >
Job Opportunity Law for Black Lives hiring membership director
This position is a unique opportunity to support and direct an emerging network of lawyers, law students and legal workers.
Apply here >
Fellowship Opportunity 2019 MTO Fellowship
Applications are now open for the 2019 MTO Fellows Program. This program is an important initiative designed to encourage, promote and support a community of individuals who contribute to the diversity of the legal profession.
Apply here >
Fellowship Opportunity Soros Equality Fellowship
The U.S. Programs’ Equality team seeks applicants for its Soros Equality Fellowship, which aims to support emerging mid-career professionals who will become long-term innovative leaders influencing the racial justice field. The fellowship award provides individuals with a grant of $100,000 to support production of an innovative racial justice project over the course of 18 months.
Apply here >