Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rebuilding and Restoring the Golden State

By James Gilliam, Guest Alumni Blogger

Given the poverty crisis plaguing California, I was excited to have the opportunity recently to attend a Community Legislative Briefing hosted by The California Partnership -- of which the ACLU of Southern California is a proud member -- a diverse coalition of health, human service, labor, low income, immigrant rights and civil rights community-based organizations that have come together to fight poverty in our state.

The ACLU of Southern California believes that economic justice and civil liberties are inextricably intertwined. Indeed, basic economic rights are an essential prerequisite for the full and fair functioning of democracy in the United States and for the development and flourishing of civil liberties. So, we were excited to host this diverse group of community members, lawmakers, and advocates to discuss various policy proposals that, if enacted, will all come together to rebuild and restore our Golden State.

Budgets are about choices and priorities. Will California choose to reinvest in safety-net programs after $15 billion in health and human services programs were slashed in the last four years alone? Will California choose to expand its already bloated prison system instead of prioritizing cost-effective and evidence-based alternatives to incarceration that strengthen public safety while reducing over-incarceration? Will California choose to close the widening income inequality gap by passing and implementing common-sense policy changes?

All of the above questions hang in the balance as the California State Legislature rounds out the next final weeks of its legislative session. The Legislature must complete its review and approval of all legislation by Sept. 13, 2013 and the Governor has until Oct. 13, 2013 to sign bills into law.

California is on the road to recovery partly due to voter approved Propositions 30 and 39, which in the first fiscal year alone increased California's General Fund by about $7 billion. But it is time now for our policy makers to start rebuilding and reinvesting in the programs that reduce poverty, provide security through health care, food, housing and employment access, and lift up the most vulnerable among us.

California lawmakers and Gov. Brown can act now to begin restoring California to the Golden State by supporting and passing these legislative proposals:

-AB 218 (Dickinson) would remove the question about an individual's criminal history from city, county and state job applications, while allowing a background check or questioning about criminal history later in the hiring process. In California and around the country, qualified job applicants are plagued by old or minor criminal records and discouraged from applying for employment because job applications include a "box" that requires immediate disclosure of criminal history information. This often results in the employer immediately and unfairly rejecting the applicant regardless of qualifications. Because people of color are especially impacted by this practice, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently endorsed as a best practice removing the question about conviction histories from job applications to maximize compliance with federal civil rights law. California should follow this and the lead of six other states and more than 40 U.S. cities and counties that have removed the conviction history inquiry from initial job applications in public employment.

-SB 649, also known as the Local Control in Sentencing Act, will give counties greater flexibility and control over their public safety spending by granting prosecutors discretion in charging for possession of a controlled substance for personal use as either a misdemeanor or felony (aka "wobbler). This bill will not change the penalties for sale, transportation, manufacture nor possession for sale. SB 649 will allow local prosecutors to make judgments that can help safely reduce the amount of jail space taken by those serving time for personal drug possession and preserve jail space for people who pose a risk to the community. And very importantly, SB 649 will support reentry and reduce recidivism. Those convicted of a misdemeanor will be spared the lifelong barriers that follow a felony conviction, including obstacles to housing, employment and even public support.

Two other state bills, widely supported by economic justice and civil rights organizations, were held in the legislature in the last two weeks. We and our allies will continue to press forward with these policy solutions going forward.

-SB 283 (Hancock), also known as the Successful Re-entry and Access to Jobs Act, would end the lifetime ban on people with prior drug felony convictions from receiving federal food stamp benefits and make our communities safer. Benefits would be restored only for people playing by the rules and complying with the conditions of probation or parole. California currently maintains a lifetime ban on people with prior drug-related felony convictions from receiving basic needs assistance through CalFresh (known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). This ban exists despite the fact that California has the second highest rate of recidivism in the country and that countless studies finding access to basic needs supports, like food and housing assistance, reduces crime and recidivism and contributes to successful re-entry of individuals who have been incarcerated.

-AB 271 (Mitchell) would remove the Maximum Family Grant (MFG) rule in the California Work Opportunities and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program, thereby ending the state law that prevents parents who receive assistance through the CalWORKs program from receiving a grant for any child born to the household while any member of the household is receiving aid. The MFG policy is intended to control impoverished parents' choices about the size of their families and when to conceive, through the threat of economic hardship. The MFG rule has not led to changes in birthrates among poor women, but has resulted in women being forced to make desperate decisions that endanger the health and safety of themselves and their children. Repealing the MFG policy will prevent the harmful health and human development consequences as a result of denying a basic needs grant to infants and will restore reproductive privacy to CalWORKs families.

Moving these policy proposals forward, in addition to restoring safety-net programs like Medi-Cal, CalWORKs, child care, In-Home Supportive Services, and SSI from repeated years of devastating budget cuts, are some of the concrete steps California must take to restore our Golden State.
Californians are looking for answers to the widespread poverty that impacts so many. Advancing policies like these will move us in the right direction.

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