Moving Toward Decarceration

Police Violence, Mass Incarceration, and Where We Go from Here

The police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in Louisville and Minneapolis were beyond sickening and shocking. At the same time, these horrific acts of violence were, ultimately (and tragically), unsurprising. Our country has a deep and long-standing problem with police violence — all too often lethal — directed at Black people. Our country was built using slave labor, and this foundation of racism and violence against Black people has stayed with us through our entire history: from the Jim Crow era and segregation, to decades of redlining and systemically denying financial opportunity to the Black community, to the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of Black people. We saw this thread continue with the murders of people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We saw it with the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery and when Jacob Blake was shot in the back. We’re just now starting to see it on video — finally putting a bright light on a disaster that’s been unfolding for a very long time.

The video of George Floyd’s murder will haunt me for the rest of my life. And I’ll be the first to admit: It shouldn’t take a video of someone being brutally murdered to stir people into action. But it has had that effect, and I see tremendous opportunity in this moment to fight for meaningful changes that won’t just reform our criminal justice system, but fundamentally reimagine it. Reform is not enough. We need to acknowledge the system is broken, and work from the ground up to rebuild a criminal justice system that will not primarily persecute people of color.

I’m laying out a policy plan on changes I’d like to see us make here in California. We’ve been working on these issues in the Legislature for years, sometimes with success, sometimes with failure, sometimes with partial success. I’ve led or supported significant efforts to combat racism in our justice system. We successfully passed major bail reform to end cash bail; we passed aggressive changes to the standard for use of lethal force by law enforcement; we passed significant sentencing reform legislation; we moved in the direction of decriminalizing sex work; we ended life sentences without parole for youth; we’ve taken bold steps to protect immigrants in the criminal justice system from deportation; we’ve aggressively moved to reduce criminal convictions of innocent people; and so much more.

Yet, although we’ve had some great successes, it has not been enough: We need to do more and go farther. 2020 was a tough year in the legislature, and we had many good bills cut because of the nature of the shortened session. I worked with many of my colleagues to author and co-authored impactful bills to address key issues regarding our criminal justice system and police violence. Sadly, many of them did not make it through the legislature. But, we had some important victories.

We passed bills to make juries more diverse, and to end unlawful, racially biased discrimination in jury selection. We also passed major parole reform efforts to allow incarcerated people who fought fires while in prison to become firefighters after their release, and ACA 6, which, if approved by voters during the Nov 2020 election, will allow formerly incarcerated individuals to vote. We passed the long overdue Racial Justice Act, to ensure that California doesn’t convict or give a sentence to a defendant based on race, ethnicity or national origin. And we passed a ban on carotid restraints — one of the most commonly used strangleholds that police use as lethal force (for example, with Eric Garner).

Much work remains to fix a broken system. With the overdue shift in sentiment toward changing the system, we need to enact bold changes.

I am committed to the fight for true racial justice in America. I will do everything in my power to advocate for fundamental changes to our justice system so that we are no longer watching grainy phone footage of brutal murders of Black people, imagining all the ones that weren’t filmed.

This is a very difficult moment, but I commit to putting my head down, getting to work, building on the successes we’ve had and going well beyond, and pushing for badly-needed long term changes.

1. Remaking public safety and reinvesting funding

It’s time we move past a system where police are given automatic budget increases every single year, while education and healthcare aren’t adequately funded. I acknowledge the fact that as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, I supported such increases, particularly to fund police academy classes to bring young, more diverse officers into the ranks. It’s time to re-think this approach and to make the hard decisions about what roles need to be played by armed police officers and what roles don’t.

Cities across the country, starting with Minneapolis (where George Floyd was murdered), are beginning to imagine what it looks like to reinvest funds from police into other public safety programs and fundamentally change their police departments from the ground up. Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Shamann Walton committed last week to reinvest funding from the San Francisco Police Department into San Francisco’s Black community, which has historically been massively underserved and marginalized, to the point where many have been forced out of the city through gentrification. Today, approximately 5% of San Francisco’s population is Black, even though in 1970 it was 13%.

I agree that we need to reinvest money in the Black community here, and I trust Mayor Breed and Supervisor Walton’s vision on where that money should go.

There are better ways to spend our money than continually increasing our police budget, especially as our city and state have treated police officers as generalists who deal with many problems that do not require a gun to solve. Indeed, many police officers have no desire to respond to calls that, frankly, have little or nothing to do with criminal justice, let alone armed criminal justice.

San Francisco already has a non-emergency and city services hotline, SF 311. Other cities, like Eugene, Oregon, have fully operational and expansive non-emergency service support teams that respond to calls and dispatch a medic and a crisis counselor equipped with mental health experience when needed. This service should be included in San Francisco’s non-emergency line, expanded and used particularly in cases involving mental illness, substance use and homelessness where de-escalation or other support is needed.

San Francisco needs to do much better when it comes to non-police interventions. For example, our Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) is way too small, way too limited in its hours, and not early expansive enough to do the job citywide in a timely manner. We need a much more robust non-police ability to respond to challenges surrounding homelessness, mental health, and addiction.

We also don’t need an armed officer to respond to every single report of a crime. Civilian investigators, for example, can respond — in a deescalated and cost-effective way — to property crimes that have already occurred.

These are just examples of ways in which we can focus police resources on dangerous situations that actually require police attention, while moving police away from being the default go-to response to homelessness, mental health, addiction, and non-dangerous investigations.

Here’s what I’ve been working on:

This year, I was a co-author of Assemblymember Kamlager’s AB 2054, and I shepherded the bill through the Senate where I presented it on the floor. This bill passed the legislature, but was sadly vetoed. It would’ve funded non-armed first responders for situations that police officers would normally be summoned for — including mental health crises, incidents involving substance use, and emergencies with those living on our streets. I fully support this type of legislation and plan to support it in future legislative sessions as well.

Here are the policies I’d like to see implemented:

Create, in San Francisco and statewide, fully operational and expansive non-emergency service support teams of trained health professionals — contacted and dispatched through 911 — who respond to cases involving mental illness, substance use and homelessness where de-escalation, medical care, or other support is needed. Fully fund these teams using money from the police budget.

Reinvest money from the police budget in San Francisco’s Black community — affordable housing in historically Black neighborhoods like Bayview-Hunters Point, better infrastructure in these neighborhoods, and funding for community services and health care, especially for youth.

2. Demilitarization of the police, limiting use of force and violent dispersal methods, and increasing police accountability

Over the past decades, police departments across the country have become increasingly militarized, which was on full display after Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Police are often equipped with military-grade armored vehicles, riot gear, and dispersal tools like rubber bullets and tear gas (a weapon that is actually banned in warfare). These are both unnecessary and dangerous, and they do nothing to quell protests, but rather incite fear and anger and are often abused to hurt protestors. Demilitarizing the police means restricting the use of federal grant money for military equipment like drones, tanks, and other weapons of war. San Jose set a good example when it returned a military-grade armored vehicle, and others should follow suit. Police have no legitimate need for this equipment — it is costly and deadly and it has no business in our police departments.

Here are the policies I’d like to see implemented, and plan to support or author legislation around:

Open records for settlements for police misconduct. We must ensure that police misconduct settlements are public and available to all employers, and especially to other police departments who may be hiring officers involved in the settlements.

Allow (indeed, require) police departments to access and review complaint files and misconduct records during the hiring process. Additionally, prohibit the hiring of an officer who has been found guilty (internally or in court) of specified serious violations (e.g. sexual harassment, rape, sexual assault, brutality). Prohibit the promotion of officers with a certain number of verified serious misconduct complaints.

Prohibit “no-knock” warrants in California, which allow officers to enter a home and serve a search warrant without knocking or identifying themselves. A no-knock warrant on the wrong apartment led to Breonna Taylor’s murder at the hands of the Louisville police.

Require the return of military equipment to the federal government and prohibit surplus military equipment from being purchased by local law enforcement.

Require a written record of every time an officer’s gun is unholstered and if it is discharged.

The records for both events would include time, date, location, officer’s name and badge number, the demographic data of the person at which the weapon was pointed, the type of infraction or alleged crime being committed, the rationale for pulling a gun or firing it, and the result of those actions. Additionally, they would include information about how the situation ended (e.g. arrest, de-escalation, injury/death, etc). These records would be available to the public within 14 days and available online in perpetuity.

What I’ve been working on:

I voted for and strongly supported Assemblymember Shirley Weber’s use of lethal force bill, AB 392, which changed the standard by which police were allowed to use lethal force. Before AB 392, police were allowed to use deadly force in situations where it was considered “objectively reasonable” to do so, which was ill-defined and lax. AB 392 created a far stricter standard for police use of lethal force, but we still have a long way to go. I also voted for the original version of the bill, AB 931, which was even stronger.

I voted for Assemblymember Todd Gloria’s bill AB 3131, which enacted important checks on police militarization. Unfortunately, though the bill passed the Assembly and Senate, it was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. I would support and co-author a future version of this bill, which is more relevant than ever.

I co-authored Senator Steven Bradford’s SB 731, which would end qualified immunity — a controversial policy that protects police from liability for misconduct. It would have made it possible to take away police badges from police officers with misconduct charges (like using excessive force), or who were convicted of a number of crimes. Sadly, this bill was killed in the Assembly, but will hopefully be brought back next year.

I am a co-author of Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez’s bill to limit the use of rubber bullets, tear gas and other “non-lethal” weapons.. In the past couple of weeks, police have used rubber bullets to hurt protestors and journalists. This has to stop. Though rubber bullets are considered a “less violent” dispersal method, they are very violent, and they hurt, blind and even kill people. Unfortunately, this bill did not make it through the legislature, but will hopefully be brought back next year.

I am a co-author of AB 1196, authored by Assemblymember Mike Gipson, which bans police from using carotid restraints, one of the most commonly used strangleholds. Eric Garner was murdered by police in New York City using a stranglehold. These laws also need greater enforcement, since chokeholds are already banned in many states, but police are not prosecuted for using them. Any bans like this, if passed, must be coupled with enforcement and oversight. This bill was signed into law in late September.

I was a principal co-author of Senator Mike McGuire’s SB 629 — the Press Freedom Act — which passed the legislature but was just vetoed. This bill was a response to recent protests in which members of the press were targeted by police officers as they tried to do their jobs and record and report on what was going on. This bill would have allowed the press to enter “closed” areas, prohibit police officers from assaulting the press or interfering with their recording of events, prohibit officers from citing members of the press for breaking curfews or other such violations, and allow members of the press to challenge any detention immediately. A free press is a critical part of any democracy, and the police treatment of and violence against members of the press in recent months has been deeply disturbing.

I supported Senator Nancy Skinner’s SB 1421, which opened up police records related to officer misconduct. Previously, California’s police records were among the most secretive and restricted in the country. More work needs to be done to make sure police cannot be rehired if they have records of misconduct. Supervisor Shamann Walton is fighting for this in San Francisco, and I fully support his effort. One of my colleagues is also working on legislation to create a police decertification process for officers to stop bad cops from being hired by a new city after being fired from another for misconduct. I fully support and plan to co-author this legislation when it is introduced.

3. Mass incarceration, broken windows policing, the War on Drugs, prosecution and sentencing reform

At the heart of our criminal justice system’s racism and dysfunction is our prison system, and the shift toward the mass incarceration of Black people and other people of color since the end of the Jim Crow era.

The NAACP notes that “African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites.” Additionally, our prison population has increased by 700% in the last four decades, at a significantly higher rate than population or crime growth, according to the ACLU.

These are horrifying statistics that should deeply concern us all. As has been noted by many scholars and activists, American prisons are often for-profit, and even government-run prisons extract free or obscenely cheap labor from their incarcerated populations. Our prisons have essentially become an extension of our country’s history of slavery and segregation. We are still systemically denying opportunity and freedom to Black people — this time, in the guise of “criminal justice.”

The War on Drugs, spurred in the early 1970s by President Richard Nixon and continuing for decades, criminalized drug usage and possession, which has led to a significant increase in incarceration. Around 1/5th of the incarcerated population in the United States is serving time on a drug charge. A report from the Center for American Progress explains that incarceration does not help with substance use issues and, in reality, is likely to worsen these issues and lead to a significantly increased chance of overdose death. And this so-called “War on Drugs” is also racist: Black people are more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than white people by about four times.

I’ve supported and authored legislation to reform our drug laws, including legalizing cannabis and reducing sentences for drug possession. I strongly supported District Attorney George Gascón’s efforts to expunge the records of over 9,000 incarcerated people or formerly incarcerated people with a marijuana charges.

“Broken windows” policing — where petty crimes are given serious treatment by law enforcement — overwhelmingly targets Black and brown people, and has not proven to actually reduce crime. The War on Drugs and the “broken windows” philosophies still inform much of our criminal justice system today and have led to increases in incarceration of Black people. We must move away from these models immediately.

Another large issue with the War on Drugs/broken windows philosophy is that of sentence enhancements. Sentence enhancements were also a product of 1970s criminal justice and policing and were used to add time to people’s sentences based on particulars of the crime committed (if the defendant was in a gang, or a child was involved, etc.). In California, we have more than 150 sentencing enhancements on the books.

These enhancements have significantly increased our incarcerated population and also make it harder for incarcerated people to integrate back into society after serving their time, given the longer a sentence, the harder reintegration can be. We need to end unnecessary sentence enhancements in California, of which there are many. We also need to help formerly incarcerated people get their lives back on track through job retraining, increased access to programs that reduce recidivism, and increased housing for parolees so they aren’t homeless upon leaving prison and forced back into crime in order to survive.

Here are the policies I’d like to see implemented, and plan to support or author legislation around:

Fully end all Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF) abilities by police, sheriffs, and law enforcement, and end Equitable Sharing Arrangements with federal agencies CAF allows law enforcement to seize property it suspects has been involved in the commission of a crime. This is a relic of the War on Drugs. Police can seize any property (but particularly large sums of cash, vehicles, even homes) that they think aided in the commission of crimes. The seized property itself is what is on trial and accused of the crime, not the owner of the property. It is then incumbent upon the owner to demonstrate that the property was never used to commit a crime in any way.

Federal law enforcement has promoted the use of CAF to local police as a way for local police to augment revenue streams to their operating budgets. Simultaneously, federal authorities during the War on Drugs heavily relied on local police to intercept drug traffickers during routine traffic stops or for minor arrests and used CAF as an incentive to step up those types of arrests.

Fully decriminalize sex work in California. The criminalization of sex work is a relic of the “broken windows” era, and needs to end. Sex workers are workers and full human beings who deserve to be treated as such. Sex workers are frequently queer and/or of color and are criminalized because of outdated, racist, homophobic and sexist norms and laws.

Close down prisons in our state. We won’t move away from mass incarceration until we actually begin to close down prisons. I’ve advocated for this change for a while, and I don’t plan on letting up.

What I’ve been working on:

My sentence enhancement repeal bill, SB 136, was signed into law in 2019. It was law enforcement’s #1 bill to oppose that year. SB 136 repealed the most common sentence enhancement in California, adding a year of prison time to people’s sentences for each prior felony conviction. To pass SB 136, we had to fight hard with law enforcement, and we ultimately passed the bill with the bare number of votes it needed. SB 136 was a significant step toward reducing mass incarceration, and we need to build on this work.

I worked with San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin on securing state budget funding to ensure these sentence enhancement repeals can reach incarcerated people retroactively, thus reducing their sentences. We need more funding for public defenders in order to do this work. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, there was no money in the budget this year. That being said, we plan to keep working on it.

I co-authored Senator Bob Hertzberg’s SB 10, which ended money bail in California. Money bail was used to hold people pre-trial and had nothing to do with whether or not they were a public safety risk, but rather whether or not they could pay the bail amount. This is wrong and discriminatory, and SB 10 established a new system to determine a defendant’s custody status based on whether or not they are a public safety risk.

I authored SB 592 to widen the jury pool to any tax filer (as opposed to just registered voters and drivers’ license/identity card holders). This legislation would ensure a more racially and socioeconomically diverse jury pool, and thus lead to fairer juries. It was just signed into law by our Governor.

I co-authored (and shepherded through the Senate) Assemblymember Shirley Weber’s AB 3070, which will address unlawful discrimination in the selection of juries by using an objective test to determine whether discrimination — through implicit or explicit bias — has occurred. This was signed into law this September by Governor Newsom.

SB 855 is a bill I authored – which was signed into law — to require private insurance companies to cover non-emergency mental health and substance use disorder treatment, including medication-assisted treatment (MAT) like methadone. We need to get people the help they need before they reach a crisis point, not after, and we need to ensure mental health and substance use treatment are fully funded. Far too many people, including people living on our streets, suffer from untreated substance use and mental health issues, and according to a 2016 study, around half of police killing victims were people with a disability or mental illness. That is completely unacceptable and we need to do better to get people the help they need, and to ensure the right people are responding when they are in crisis.

I co-authored ACA 1 with Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, which placed Proposition 17 on the ballot. Proposition 17, if it receives a majority of votes from Californians, will restore the right to vote for people who are on parole.

I was a strong supporter of and voted for AB 2147, authored by Assemblymember Eloise Goméz Reyes, which is now law. It allows nonviolent offenders who have fought fires while incarcerated to have their records expunged, paving the way for individuals leaving prison to seek a career as a firefighter once they have served their time.

I co-authored AB 2542 with Assemblymember Ash Kalra, which is also known as the California Racial Justice Act. This was just signed into law, and will ensure that California doesn’t convict or give a sentence to a defendant based on race, ethnicity or national origin.

Before the pandemic required us to reduce our bills loads for 2020, I was authoring legislation, SB 888, to fund contingency management programs for those using methamphetamines and other stimulants. These programs are the only ones proven to actually reduce meth use and help people stay sober. In these programs, meth users are given gift cards or small cash payments for staying sober. We need more financial investment in programs like these moving forward to help people stay clean, and to reduce the need for intervention by law enforcement.

I plan to reintroduce legislation to allow safe injection sites in California as soon as December. These harm reduction programs help people with substance use disorders access safer and cleaner supplies, care, supervision, and direction toward treatment when they are ready.

I authored SB 233, which banned the use of condoms as evidence of sex work (for arrest or at trial) and banned law enforcement from arresting sex workers for sex work or drug possession if the sex worker is reporting a violent crime. SB 233 is an important reform, and a step toward full decriminalization of sex work.

I authored SB 239, which repealed a list of draconian HIV-specific felonies from the 1980s and 1990s. These laws singled out HIV-positive individuals with uniquely harsh criminal treatment. These felonies particularly targeted women of color and sex workers, turning misdemeanor prostitution charges into felonies.

I authored SB 923, which helped bring California into the 21st century by adopting modern eyewitness identification standards so that innocent people aren’t misidentified and convicted, often on the basis of racial bias. Before COVID-19, I was authoring SB 938, which would have amended the standards used for evaluating expert testimony and forensics in court pre- and post-conviction. “Expert” testimony is very broadly defined — the bar is very low for what an “expert” can use as a source to back up their testimony — and we see junk science in our courts being used in testimonies all too often.

I strongly supported and voted for Senator Ricardo Lara’s SB 394, which banned the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole, and gave every incarcerated person sentenced before they turned 18 the opportunity for a parole hearing after 25 years of time served.

I’ve consistently voted against prison guard contract raises, since we already spend too much on our prison system. Last year, I was one of only four legislators among 120 to vote against the raises.

4. Deportations, immigration and ICE

First and foremost: we need to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE. While California cannot stop the federal government from engaging in horrific immigration tactics, we can ensure that our state never supports or helps these efforts. When re-examining our approach to criminal justice, we can’t forget the cruel, inhumane and racist immigration system that criminalizes refugees, immigrant families, and migrant workers who have done nothing wrong in their lives besides cross a border to seek safety or opportunity.

Since Trump was elected, immigration reform has become even more important. He has increased deportations and detentions — of both children and adults — in inhumane detention centers. We need to continue pushing the administration to close these detention centers, especially those in California. They are a stain on our nation.

Right now, we must stop transferring incarcerated individuals to ICE detention centers upon their release — particularly in the time of COVID-19, which has spread rapidly through these centers (where overcrowding and illness are all-too-common). Immigrants with green cards (not just undocumented immigrants), after being released from prison, can be transferred to a detention center and eventually deported.

What I’ve been working on:

I am working with immigrant rights advocates to push for an end to these transfers to ICE detention centers. They are inhumane and completely unacceptable.

I co-authored SB 54, which was signed and made California a sanctuary state, guaranteeing we would not cooperate with ICE. I also supported San Francisco becoming a sanctuary city.

I authored SB 785, which bans attorneys from asking witnesses in court about their immigration status. We know that ICE is in our courthouses, and if immigrants believe that going to court will get them deported, they’ll refuse to go, and we will all be less safe.

We need change NOW. We need to fundamentally remake our criminal justice system, from policing, to our prisons, to our courts, to our immigration system.

Changing our criminal justice system has — and will continue to be — a major focus for me. I also want your feedback. What ideas am I missing? What legislation would you like to see? How can we, as Team Wiener, best support you and your community? Email us at senator.wiener@senate.ca.gov — we are listening and we want to hear from you.

CA State Senator. Urbanist. Environmentalist. Advocate for transit, housing, clean energy, criminal justice reform, health, ending poverty. Democrat. 🏳️‍🌈

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