By Anisha Girotra
RIVERSIDE — On March 11th, Riverside Town Hall held a meeting entitled “Reclaiming the Republic” to discuss conservative concerns of the Riverside community in regards to criminal justice reform and the recent actions and policies of LA County’s District Attorney George Gascon.
With the meeting beginning with a prayer led by Pastor Brenda Wood thanking law enforcement and police officers and the playing of the National Anthem at the Republican National Convention in a video featuring former President Trump, it became clear that this meeting would discuss only one side of the issue of criminal justice reform.
Starting with the topic of the Defund the Police Movement, Chad Biano, sheriff of Riverside County, claimed that this movement would result in having no organized police department and increased mob rule and gang rule, “similar to that of third-world countries.” Furthermore, he expresses that people who are pushing for this movement “want everyone to do whatever you want…and their ultimate goal is socialism. Their ultimate goal is to change us from a free country to socialist.”
However, the goal of the Defund the Police Movement is not to abolish the police force, but to reform it to protect people of all backgrounds. An article by ABC News in November 2020 defined defunding the police as “reallocating funds from police departments to community policing and organizations like public health centers and schools [that] would serve as investments in underserved communities and could address systemic racism.”
Sheriff Bianco and Donald Dix, the moderator of this Town Hall Meeting and local radio show host, continued discussing why they disagree with this movement stating that it would increase lawlessness and move money away from public safety, equating police departments with public safety.
This argument fails to consider the fact that police officers are often called to handle situations that they have not been properly trained for, such as mental health, addiction, and homelessness calls. In an article published by the Brookings Institution, Rashawn Ray argues “Police officers are mostly trained for use-of-force tactics and worst-case scenarios to reduce potential threats. However, most of their interactions with civilians start with a conversation.” Therefore, we can see why police often “contribute to the escalation of violent force,” harming marginalized communities and people of color.
Thus, many advocates for the Defund the Police Movement argue that we need to rethink what public safety constitutes. An article in the New York Times in May 2020 described this idea as changing policies and allocating funds so that health care workers or emergency response teams would handle substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, or mental health incidents rather than police officers. This article also discusses how this reallocation of funds from the police can be used for social services that would work to mitigate these issues and give “alternatives to conflict and violence.”
Sheriff Bianco states that criminal justice reform in California means “make everything not a crime, release all of our inmates from jail, and don’t charge them with any future crimes.” Furthermore, he criticizes the left’s approach to criminal justice reform and the passage of Proposition 47 and 57 by the California Legislature by stating, “Nothing has been for public safety. Nothing has been for us as the general public to be safe. Everything has been for the criminal.”
He argues that crime, both violent crimes and low-level crimes, in Riverside County and across the country are up despite deceiving statistics, emphasizing how the decriminalization of certain crimes in recent years has caused the left and advocates of criminal justice reform to believe that defunding the police has led to lower crime rates.
However, an article in the Washington Post in June 2020 indicated that “A review of spending on state and local police over the past 60 years…shows no correlation nationally between spending and crime rates.”
While there is some evidence that increasing policing has led to a reduction in the US homicide rate in the past 20 years, an article from Politico Magazine explains how reducing crime is less dependent on a police department’s total budget and more on how they choose to spend it. Furthermore, it discusses how an increase in police officers and budget is not the only factor that has led to this reduction in crime, claiming that increases in social welfare, access to health care, employment, and other social services in the last 20 years have caused the rate of violent crime to decrease. Thus, this evidence reinforces why an emphasis on social services spending and reallocation of funds is an important aspect of the Defund the Police Movement.
The town hall meeting then moved into a discussion of the prison system and bills that have recently been proposed to help inmates along with LA County DA George Gascon’s plans for criminal justice reform.
Donald Dix introduces the topic of Assembly Constitutional Amendment (ACA) 3, the California Abolition Act, a bill that was recently introduced in the California legislature, that proposes a constitutional amendment to prohibit the legality of involuntary servitude for punishment purposes in the Constitution. He claims that this bill is a part of the movement to get inmates paid a minimum wage of about 40 cents per hour and become unionized.
When asked for his opinion, Sheriff Bianco stated that this bill would never pass in the legislature as it would not benefit public safety or the community, and it is all part of the movement that everything is for the inmate. He claims that “they want us to pay them [inmate] for being in jail.”
Sheriff Bianco argues that paying inmates a minimum page is unfair as the department already pays for their medical and housing. Furthermore, he states the current rehabilitory work programs that help inmates get jobs after they are released from jail would no longer be in place if we began to pay inmates a minimum wage.
He states that inmates already are paid about $3.50 per week for the work they do, which he labels as volunteering that is beneficial for inmates as it allows them to do something productive and leave their cells. He concludes, “I am not going to pay a criminal to work. I will pay a legitimate person to work.”
Overall, Sheriff Bianco claims that people in support of this bill and criminal justice reform brand everyone as racists and equate prison to slavery to further their own agenda without thinking of what these ideas actually mean.
Riverside County DA Michael A Hestrin later contributes to this discussion of paying inmates a minimum wage with a similar perspective expressing, “The idea that you would equate incarceration with involuntary servitude or slavery to me is preposterous.” He claims equating these two ideas is dangerous as incarceration is “a just punishment done legally and done under rules of due process” and is nothing like involuntary servitude or slavery.
This discussion of the prison system and paying inmates has failed to address systemic racism and its role in the disproportionate amount of Black and Brown Americans that are incarcerated and exploited in jail every year. As noted in an article in The Sacramento Observer, ACA 3 would remove slavery from the Constitution and “ensure the State reflect our values and push for racial equality.”
The goal of this bill is to establish a more just criminal justice system as this article indicates that “the legacy and remnants of slavery have been embedded in our prison system.” A racial disparity exists as “African Americans account for 28% of the prison population and less than 6% of California’s overall population.”
Sheriff Bianco opened the discussion of DA Gascon by discussing his recent policies that he believes are not beneficial for public safety or the community, stating that DA Gascon’s goal is to prosecute the police rather than prosecute the criminals and that this ideology gives criminals “the power.” He concluded by stating that he is happy that this type of criminal justice reform is not happening in Riverside County.
However, according to a Fox News article, DA Gascon argues that the backlash for his policies, which include ending the use of sentencing enhancements and the death penalty in LA, stems from the idea that people don’t deserve second chances after they are convicted of a crime. Addressing these criticisms, he stated: “The implication is that there is no room for redemption or rehabilitation.”
Through having speakers and an audience of mostly white conservative people, this Riverside Town Hall Meeting offered a one-sided perspective towards criminal justice reform and failed to acknowledge the ways in which systemic racism continues to impact the legal and prison systems and harm people of color, especially Black Americans, every day.
Anisha Girotra is a writer for the LA Vanguard’s social justice desk. She is a biochemistry major at UCLA, originally from Scottsdale, AZ.
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