San Francisco Chronicle

Newsom best hope for reforming system

- By Keith Wattley On Criminal Justice Keith Wattley is founder and executive director of UnCommon Law.

Over the past 20 years working as a lawyer for people in prison, I’ve met countless people serving extreme sentences. I learned about the trauma they experience­d as children. I’ve watched mentally ill men, faces covered with spit hoods, shackled at the hands and feet as they attended “treatment” in prison. Handled like animals, the vast majority of these individual­s were Black men like me.

The organizati­on I founded, UnCommon Law, works with the 35,000 people seeking release from life sentences in California. Roughly 1 in 3 people in California prisons are serving a life sentence, more than any other state. The overwhelmi­ng majority of these people are Black and Latinx, often sentenced at younger ages and for a wider range of crimes than whites. Black people in prison are more likely to be discipline­d, to be locked in more restrictiv­e settings and to be denied parole when they become eligible.

With the recall of California Gov. Gavin Newsom coming to vote today, our state’s policies have reached an inflection point. I agree with those who argue this recall is a huge waste of resources that would be better spent elsewhere — particular­ly since Newsom is already up for re-election next year.

But this recall presents opportunit­y, too.

Voters must send a resounding message that we are going forward on criminal justice reform, not backward. We need to affirm that thinly veiled racist tropes will no longer drive criminal justice policy in this state. If Newsom is replaced with Larry Elder — a Black man who doesn’t believe systemic racism exists — or another of the top conservati­ve candidates, it will be like “going back to Jim Crow,” as state Sen. Sydney Kamlager, D-Los Angeles, said.

But the imperative of criminal justice reform needs to be equally clear to Gov. Newsom, who won 86% of the Black vote and entered office pledging to combat over-incarcerat­ion. Newsom said he wanted to kick private prisons out of the state because they “lead to over-incarcerat­ion.” But private prisons hold a small percentage of people convicted of state crimes.

When people in prisons first began to contract COVID, there were desperate appeals to Newsom to release those most at risk. Instead, Newsom caved to political pressure and released just a fraction of the number recommende­d by public health officials. It’s clear that Newsom has not been the champion of people of color we hoped he would be.

That said, with Newsom, we just might have a chance to address the systemic racism. And that’s a chance worth fighting for.

If Newsom continues to fail the communitie­s he should be championin­g, however, we’ll see him at the ballot box in 2022.

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