Leaders address criminal justice reform at Fresno forum

A group of elected officials and community leaders addressed criminal justice reform in a packed southwest Fresno church on Thursday night.

The forum focused on reducing crime, recidivism and bail amounts for those who have not been criminally charged in a court of law, alternatives to incarceration, and the passage of Proposition 47, which reduces a number of sentences from felonies to misdemeanors.

“Since the late 1970s the war on drugs and the tough-on-crime campaigns have created a system of generational recidivism that has contributed to the building of a criminal justice system empire that focuses more on punishment than on restoration,” said B.T. Lewis, pastor of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Fresno and a member of Faith in Community, which hosted the event with Faith in the Valley and PICO.

Lewis cited a number of statistics to make his point. Annually, the state spends around $62,300 to house a prisoner but only $9,100 on average to educate a child. Quoting a Bible verse, he said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

He said bail should also be reduced for most inmates, as 67.9% of people behind bars in Fresno County have not been sentenced. “That suggests that our right to an expeditious resolution of our case is contingent on our ability to afford justice.”

Of “bail-stacking,” JePahl White with Faith in Community added, “With 20% of residents here in Fresno at or below the poverty line, we see that as a major hindrance.”

Fresno Superior Court Judge Jon Conklin said because of Prop 47, judges are converting many felonies to misdemeanors and that “we’ve substantially lowered bail amounts in many of the offenses, including drug offenses.”

Lewis also talked about how blacks and Latinos are jailed at higher rates than whites.

“Our children are the criminal justice system’s commodity,” Lewis said. “It is time for Fresno to seriously begin to invest money into education, mental health, drug treatment and re-entry programs, so we pray for the unbelievable.”

When asked to support a number of criminal justice reform initiatives, Linda Penner, chairwoman of the Board of State and Community Corrections, said, “Hopefully when it all comes together, there is money available for a very vigorous agenda that turns lives around.”

Fresno County Chief Probation Officer Rick Chavez said his department last week received funding to bolster its pretrial supervision program, which allows some to wait for trial outside of jail. Chavez is hopeful that by June the program could accommodate 240 people.

Fresno County Public Defender Elizabeth Diaz said of the criminal justice system: “there is hope and there is change coming.” Under the Three Strikes Law, she recalled that a man was sentenced to 25 years to life for possessing methamphetamine. She said he will now be out of jail in three months because of Proposition 47. But Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said property crimes in Fresno County have increased since the passing of Prop 47.

Mims encouraged everyone to do their part to reduce crime. “Preachers have to preach, teachers have to teach, parents have to parent, law enforcement officers have to enforce the law. It’s what we all do together that’s going to make a difference.”

After the event, Bryson White, associate director of Faith in Community and a minister with Saint Rest Baptist Church, said, “I feel like there are great opportunities to increase the overall health of our city. I’m leaving very encouraged.”

Faith in Community is planning another gathering to discuss similar issues around 6 p.m. April 30 at Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church.