Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Santa Cruz Residents Urge County to Reject State Grant Awarded for Jail Expansion

Community members in Santa Cruz gathered at the Town Clock on January 16 to tell the county Board of Supervisors to "invest in communities, not cages" and to reject the large grant awarded by the state for jail expansion, whether it be for program space or new beds. The Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) has officially recommended the distribution of jail construction funds to 15 counties, including Santa Cruz. $500 million in total is to be distributed, with $25 million going to Santa Cruz, according to Sin Barras, the group that organized the rally and has been leading the campaign to fight jail expansion locally.

"Santa Cruz County has been forward thinking during California’s public safety realignment by prioritizing community-based programming and supportive re-entry services. Re-opening and expanding an unused portion of Rountree Detention Center is a significant step backwards, we are incredibly disappointed that the BSCC approved this recommendation," notes Tash Nguyen in a press release from Sin Barras.

In 2013 the sheriff's department applied for the grant under Senate Bill 1022, and now that it has been approved by the state, the Board of Supervisors has 90 days to either approve or reject the Sheriff's proposal, which would direct the grant money towards the expansion of Watsonville's Rountree Detention Center.

"Our community does not want the jail money and demand our Board of Supervisors to reject the grant because we know that counties are better equipped to employ alternatives to incarceration."

“Community programs are more effective and less costly than incarceration,” says Nguyen, “Each person held behind bars in Santa Cruz County costs taxpayers an average of $97.17. Month to month, it is far cheaper to provide permanent housing for the homeless than to lock them up for petty offenses.”

Noting the new facility would not open until November of 2016 at the earliest, Sin Barras member Kati Teague suggests, “Two years is ample time to improve and expand the county’s existing Custody Alternatives Program, implement a host of sentencing reforms, and establish more options for those who cannot afford bail. Santa Cruz is already a leader in these fields, and should continue to push for innovative responses to problems in our criminal justice system.”

"The majority of the people sitting in the county jail are sitting in there pre-trial," Courtney Hanson said at the rally.

"They have not even been convicted yet, they simply don't have the funds to bail themselves out." Hanson suggests funding pre-trial release.

One local reform also suggested is to change the qualifying criteria for participation in the electronic monitoring program to increase the number of eligible inmates. According to Sin Barras, 370 individuals have been part of the program since the initiation of AB 109 and fewer than 4% have committed a new crime or returned to custody for technical violations.

Sin Barras claims the state grants are misleading with regards to how much jail expansion will cost local taxpayers, stating that, "These new construction dollars will be generated by selling high yield bonds to investors. Counties must match funds awarded by the state by only 5% but in most cases construction budgets require much more. The county taxpayer will pay all these costs and ongoing operational expenses for new facilities." 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Mothers in White Stand with Family of Andy Lopez

A diverse group of mothers, women, and grandmothers dressed in white attended the January 7 Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting to stand with Sujay Lopez, the mother of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was killed by Sonoma County Sheriff's deputy Erick Gelhaus on October 22. During the open comment period of the meeting, community members seeking Justice for Andy demanded an end to what they perceive as inaction from the board, and many also brought mirrors to hold up so supervisors could, according to an event announcement for the demonstration, take a "hard look" at themselves and answer the question, "why have they done nothing to indict Deputy Gelhaus?"

A Community member reflects the image of Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin back at her.

The Supervisor's Chambers was overflowing as community members waited for the public comment period section of the meeting to begin. In addition to wearing white clothing and holding mirrors of various sizes and shapes, seven people later held picket signs with large photos of nine millimeter bullets on them. These signs represented the seven shots Gelhaus killed Andy with in a time period of less than ten seconds.

Several members of the board walked into the audience in an awkward attempt to show that they also stood with the Lopez family, but apart from receiving support from a few individuals, the audience loudly heckled them. As the open comment period began, one speaker from the public explained, "there are reasons for our cynicism". 

"This isn't about photo-ops. We don't want photo-ops," she later added. 

Community members are outraged that Erick Gelhaus is back at work, and a recent interview with Supervisor Shirlee Zane has fueled more rage.

"This was not our choice to put him back to work, it was the sheriff's choice," Zane said.

"The sheriff does not report to the board of supervisors, the sheriff reports to the people. If the people don't like the job he is doing they can vote him out of office. He is an independent elected," she stated.

One mother who spoke to supervisors was blunt: "A cop in ten seconds murdered a 13-year-old child. He gets two months paid leave and is at a desk job. What does that tell the community? That it is open season on Mexicans, that's what it tell them. It tells the community that police can murder them, and murder their children...and you do nothing, the DA does nothing, to help."

"It only cost the county 225 thousand dollars to cover up a murder," she added, referring to recent reports in the media that the protests held in Santa Rosa after Andy's killing has cost law enforcement $225,000, which covered such costs as riot police.

"The track record for the Sonoma County board of supervisors on the oversight of law enforcement is unacceptable," she concluded.

Nicole Guerra, the mother of Andy's best friend, was dressed in white, and she explained to supervisors how the loss of Andy coincides with another severe tragedy in her life; the person who killed her daughter will be on trial soon. 

"Do something. Be useful," she told them. "You guys have power, you guys have the connections. Do something."

"Don't make this family wait five years, ten years. Justice needs to be served now. Gelhaus needs to be in jail. He doesn't deserve to be working."

Guerra went over her time limit to speak by a minute or two, and Supervisor Rabbitt attempted to move her along.

"You obviously can't relate to anything we say," she said in response, noting the lack of sensitivity.

"Every day for Sujay is another day to try and live. Can't you take off the mask for a minute, drop the false sympathy and feel what these parents are feeling? Imagine that, put yourself in their place."

"Do something for Sujay and Rodrigo [Andy's father] before it happens to you."

During his turn to speak, Ramon Cairo chose to turn his back to the board while addressing the community directly.

"The systematic killing of minorities in Sonoma County is alive, and to be quite honest with you the only reason why I am not really addressing these people behind me is because I feel very strongly that silence is complicity," he said.

Later in the afternoon a large portion of those in attendance at the meeting left to join Lopez family attorney Arnoldo Casillas next door in room 100A of the administration building as he filed legal paperwork amending the family's lawsuit against the county.

Andy's supporters filled up the small office and chanted "no justice, no peace" loudly. 

Elbert "Big Man" Howard, one of the founders of the Black Panthers, speaks

Ramon Cairo

Supervisor Susan Gorin

Supervisor Mike Rabbitt

Supervisor Efren Carrillo

Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Mike McGuire

Lopez Family Attorney Arnoldo Casillas amends the lawsuit against the county

Monday, January 13, 2014

Andy Lopez Memorial Rebuilt

Community members have rebuilt the memorial for Andy Lopez that is located at the site of his death. The new memorial is larger than the one it replaces, which was damaged in the middle of the night when it was set on fire on January 2. [Photos taken January 6, 2013]

Andy was killed by Sonoma County Sheriff's deputy Erick Gelhaus on October 22, who said he thought the boy was carrying a gun that was later determined to be a toy. Family members and supporters have gathered at the location of Andy's death, a vacant lot on Moorland Avenue, to grieve and to distribute information.

The memorial at the site gradually grew as community members brought flowers, toys, items of worship, and protest signs demanding justice for the boy. When the first rain arrived, canopies were erected to protect the memorial from the elements.

Andy's parents have said they want the lot to become a park in their son's honor, and in November the first tree was planted by community members who enthusiastically share that vision.

The first tree planted at the Andy Lopez Memorial Park