San Bernardino’s Race for District Attorney Brings Calls for Criminal Justice Reform

San Bernardino’s Race for District Attorney Brings Calls for Criminal Justice Reform

Panel from left to right: Life Center Church Minister Kesha McGee, Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice Jenia Dunlap, Institute for Developing Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership Lanae Norwood, San Bernardino County Public Defender Attorney Ed O’Brien, panel members, addressing the audience. (Photo by Jelani Lockert of Jelani Shot This)

Gail Fry

At an event billed as “It’s Time to Rethink Public Safety” held on April 30, in the City of Fontana, Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement informed the audience they invited San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos and his opponent, Attorney Jason Anderson, to give their views regarding criminal justice reform with an emphasis on rehabilitation instead of incarceration.  

However, only Anderson was in attendance. And according to organizers, Ramos claimed to have been given little notice which caused him to be unable to attend.  Near the front of the room, Anderson sat on the left side of a bench next to a sign representing Ramos and where Inland Congregations United for Change and Life Center Church Minister, Kesha McGee, sat on the right side holding a protest sign stating, “Represent us, don’t avoid us.”   

The 2016 race for San Bernardino County District Attorney finds the incumbent, Michael Ramos, facing his biggest challenger and criticism for the unsuccessful outcome of what was once termed a “sweeping conspiracy and bribery case” related to a $102 million settlement between the County of San Bernardino and the Colonies Partners over a commercial and housing development project in the City of Upland.  

According to documents obtained by The Voice/Black Voice News, the lawsuit filed in March 2002 by the Colonies Partners (Colonies) against the County of San Bernardino (county) involved responsibility for the flood control infrastructure installed on the property to handle flood waters that historically flowed across the property and whether the county’s actions caused additional flood waters to flow across the land than was the historical norm.  

This legal dispute filed against the county led to numerous legal actions and millions in taxpayer dollars being spent defending the county; pursuing other government agencies for their role and responsibility, prosecuting numerous former public officials and individuals involved with the development as well as politicians who approved the $102 million settlement; and defending against claims being made by the now exonerated defendants against the county.  

As a result, tax payers are currently at risk of increasing financial liability in relation to the case.  Also, one of the former defendants in the casee, developer Jeff Burum, is providing financial support to Jason Anderson’s campaign through a political action committee.   

Additionally, the growing scandal has awakened the minority communities to seek reform of the criminal justice system with one community organization, Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE) educating the community about the issues and the role of a district attorney while encouraging them to vote and hold the district attorney accountable.  

“The people, we make the decisions on who will serve in this office,” Immanuel Praise Fellowship Bishop Kelvin Simmons informed the audience of over 100 people as he outlined  the purpose of the event was to inform the community about what a district attorney does, about the justice issues that matter to the community, how the current justice system impacts individuals with testimony from those who have been convicted of crimes and then turned their lives around and finally, why our elected officials must rethink their approach to public safety and justice.      

California Partnership Community Organizer Ipyani Lockert informed the audience that the event was being live-streamed on the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU) and COPE’s Facebook pages to expand its impact while providing the hashtag for Twitter as #rethinksafetysb and acknowledging the numerous organizations involved in the movement.  

“This is a non-partisan gathering, therefore, the one candidate in the room will not have an opportunity to speak,” COPE Community Organizer Demita Burgess explained acknowledging the presence of attorney Jason Anderson, challenger to district attorney Michael Ramos.  

Burgess informed the audience that COPE will have a panel to take questions from the floor and gather questions people have for the district attorney and his challenger and provide their responses by email.  

ACLU Community Engagement and Policy Advocate Luis Nolasco explained he works on immigrant rights and criminal justice while also educating the public on what a district attorney does on behalf of the public. 

“Most people just think of them mainly as a prosecutor but they have actually a lot of discretionary power that we don’t think about,” Nolasco voiced explaining, “Particularly with policies around the criminal justice system and sentencing.”  

“Our communities of color often face tougher sentencing and a lot of that comes at the hands of the prosecutors,” Nolasco opined directing the audience to the website: https://meetyourda.org/ to learn about the role of district attorneys and communicate with your county’s district attorney.    

“There is an elephant in the room right now; that we are going to have to go on and address, we are extremely disappointed that we actually have to have this conversation the way that we have to have it,” COPE Associate Director Felicia Jones voiced explaining, “We are here because we want to hear from our district attorney.”  

“First of all, we want to be educated, but we also want to hear from him,” Jones explained confirming, “We are disappointed because we want to have a non-partisan conversation where we hear from both of our candidates, we are going to follow the rules but that doesn’t mean we are not going to be heard.”  

“We are re-thinking public safety altogether that means that after June, we have got work to do,” Jones predicted explaining, “We have work to do to make sure that our district attorney is accountable to the people.”  

“We are not happy today and we are going to defeat this elephant in the room and our voices are going to be heard,” Jones declared explaining COPE re-launched the Rethink Public Safety Initiative to promote a “responsible restorative, redemptive approach to criminal justice.”  

“This is important to us because too many of our babies have prison as an option not college and that is not okay,” Jones concluded.    

COPE Executive Director Reverend Samuel Casey introduced a panel on criminal justice issues consisting of Life Center Church Minister Kesha McGee, Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, Jenia Dunlap, Institute for Developing Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership, Lanae Norwood, and San Bernardino County Public Defender, Attorney Ed O’Brien.   

In response to a question on the effect of Proposition 47, O’Brien revealed, “One of the things we hear often (sic) is our jails are filled because of Proposition 47.  O’Brien accused the current district attorney Ramos of sitting “on a study that the board of supervisors commissioned and paid for of its own jail and what we found is 7,000 jail beds we have, 75 percent of those people in those jail beds have not been convicted of a crime.”  

“We also know 8 percent of the people that are arrested (sic) were arrested of a crime of violence,” O’Brien voiced explaining, “What we also know is of all the people sitting in jail waiting to be convicted or their case dismissed, 92 percent are going home.”  

“So the jails are not filled because of Assembly Bill 109 (AB109) or Proposition 47 and they are also not filled because of dangerous people,” O’Brien declared while pointing to “data” indicating “San Bernardino arrests way more people than any other county in the state” while San Bernardino County’s crime rate is “no worse than Sacramento and LA.“

O’Brien explained he had been “trying to convince our leaders” to base their comments on the data yet public officials continue to claim the “jails are filled” because of AB109 and proposition 47. O’Brien concluded, “They are either lying or they are ignorant but either way they shouldn’t be in charge of making those statements.”  

Casey objected to the county spending $220 million annually for that jail “every year, over and over” questioning whether that was an effective use of taxpayer dollars.  

Life Center Church Minister Kesha McGee spoke of the cost of crime including the cost of the investigations, court hearings and incarceration and how her program, Ceasefire, has been encouraging rehabilitation of those charged with crimes.   

Regarding policies directed toward those in the country illegally and the negative impact on their willingness to report crimes, Jennaya revealed in San Bernardino County, many illegal immigrants are not being informed, as required by law, of the potential consequences of their criminal conviction on their immigration status.  Jenaya described this as “double punishment” and noted that after serving their sentence for a crime, they could face deportation and never see their family again.  

In response to questions about the killing of Nathaneal Pickett II and Diante Yarber by law enforcement in the City of Barstow, Lanae Norwood from the Institute for Developing Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership asked, “How many more times can this happen without accountability?” 

“When you have Nathanael Pickett who police knew had a mental illness and he was unarmed and they gunned him down in cold blood and the district attorney did nothing about it,” Norwood charged, “There was no accountability, there was immunity for that officer.”  

“The people didn’t feel that way, the people awarded a judgment to that family in the amount of 33.5 million dollars,” Norwood shared explaining, “I am sure the family would give that money back to have their son back.”    

Norwood then spoke of the recent killing of Yarber, father of three children, in the City of Barstow while in the Walmart parking lot in broad daylight where City of Barstow Police Officers fired 30 shots and objected to the fact that the officers involved are back on the street.  

Norwood spoke of the importance of training police officers on de-escalation and with regard to the Black community, sensitivity training.  

Young Visionaries Youth Leadership Academy President and CEO Terrance Stone and formerly incarcerated, Michael Jarado and Michael Garcia, spoke of the lasting impact of being labeled as a gang member and how the label adds years to any prison sentence, a label without an expiration date.  Stone, Jarado and Garcia testified regarding how they have turned their lives around and are now productive citizens.   

COPE Executive Director Reverend Samuel Casey concluded the event by reminding the community to “rethink public safety alternatives to incarceration” while holding their public officials accountable. For more information please visit website:  http://copesite.org/.

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