Oakland human rights center hosts budget rally

on July 30, 2009

Concerned about California’s new budget?  Think we need criminal justice and prison reform, more green jobs, a safer Oakland?  The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has a campaign for you.

This local non-profit is hosting a ‘People’s Budget Fix’ rally today  from 11-12 p.m. in front of the Elihu Harris State Building on Clay Street.  Their goal: reduce wasteful California prison spending and increase money for social services.

Front of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

“The vast majority of Californians, before they cut everything else, would make cuts to the prison system,” said Zachary Norris, director of the Center’s Books Not Bars campaign, citing a California Field Poll from last June. His campaign advocates for California prison and youth prison reform.

California has already shaved $1.2 billion  off of the corrections department in their new budget, but the Ella Baker Center is calling for bigger and smarter cuts.

And at 170,000 inmates, California’s prison system is the largest in the nation, according to a report released last week by The Sentencing Project, a national research and advocacy center.

Corrections spending now takes up 11 percent of the state budget – roughly twice as much as it did 20 years ago, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s office. California’s adult prison population has increased by 125% over the past 20 years.

The state’s mandatory three-year system of parole causes problems, said Norris, calling it responsible for a “revolving door” through which prisoners continue to end up back behind bars.

“People are getting out, getting arrested on technical violations and are getting sent back into the prison system,” he said.  “People are paying for that through their taxes.”

The rally today is co-sponsored by the Center for Juvenile & Criminal Justice, Drug Policy Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union California Affiliates and Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes.

The Ella Baker center’s specific budget recommendations include closing the state-run Division of Juvenile Justice and re-allocating the money locally.  The Drug Policy Alliance recommends focusing on community health responses to minor drug offenses, which they say could save the state over $5.5 billion in the next five years.

The savings could be put back into the $10 billion cut from social services in the state budget, Norris said.

wall mural of Ella Baker

wall mural of Ella Baker

Three California legislators – San Francisco Assembly member Tom Ammiano, 14th District Assembly Member Nancy Skinner and District 8 Senator Leiland Yee will speak at the rally, as well as health care advocates and Oakland community members affected by the state budget.

Ever since their inception, the center has focused on issues of police brutality and reforming the criminal justice system of California.

Named after Ella Baker, the famous civil rights activist who worked alongside Howard Zinn with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the 60’s, the center was founded in 1996 by Van Jones, a graduate of Yale Law who is currently serving as Special Advisor on Green Jobs to the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Their modest corner building on 40th  street in Oakland  is decorated with murals of children and people of all races marching in protest.

Besides reforming California’s prison system, the center runs campaigns to bring green jobs to low-income communities and minorities, and improve Oakland in socially, economically and environmentally sound ways, according to their website.

Norris said that the center has already sent their budget recommendations to the lawmakers, and they plan to bring their concerns to Sacramento on Aug 18.

“We are going to bring the same message when the legislators return from their vacation. Unfortunately, every-day Californians don’t get a vacation from the impact of the budget cuts,” Norris said. “[Legislators] need to understand that this is critical to the state.”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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