Showing Up for Racial Justice partners with BIPOC-led organizations, supporting their efforts and following their lead. What do our partners do and how do we show up for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color? How does accountability manifest in these relationships? This article is part of a series exploring these questions in depth for the fifteen community partners of Bay Area SURJ.
Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) is a coalition of over 80 grassroots organizations working for decarceration in California. Their mission includes reducing the number of incarcerated people, reducing the number of prisons and jails operating in the state, and redirecting funds away from the correctional system and into health and human services.
Brian Kaneda, Deputy Director and Los Angeles Coordinator for CURB, emphasizes the reason CURB works to reduce the impact of incarceration on Californians: “One of the most pervasive, sadistic, and dangerous ways that anti-Black racism is perpetuated is through the criminal punishment system. Shifting resources away from the criminal punishment system is one of the most powerful ways we can fight back.”
A source of CURB’s strength is leadership by people who have been directly impacted by the criminal injustice system, who are well-positioned to come up with radical solutions. “They set the standard and are unwavering,” says SURJ Bay Area liaison Elizabeth Fraser. CURB’s Executive Director, Amber-Rose Howard, is a formerly incarcerated Black woman and a California State University graduate, and Brian Kaneda, the Deputy Director, is a trained publicist whose father is a formerly incarcerated Black man. As a Black-led coalition and organization, onboarding impacted organizers to leadership and decision-making positions as CURB members is central to their vision of transforming the landscape for vulnerable populations. As Brian stated, “Make sure that not only are people who are impacted getting a seat at the table but deciding what’s on the menu.”
CURB’s initiatives are driven by a vision of public health that bridges environmental, racial, and economic justice. The strength of this coalition lies in advocacy at both the local and state levels. The coalition has breadth both geographically and programmatically - through legislative action, budget advocacy, and building community partnerships. Although the organizations that make up CURB each engage in social justice activism in their own ways, a shared vision allows them to put more weight and resources behind bigger initiatives.
This past April, CURB released The People’s Plan for Prison Closure, which outlines CURB’s vision for the closure of correctional facilities in California. The 49-page report advocates for closing ten prisons in the state of California within the next five years. The report lays out evidence detailing the public health crisis created by the prison system that includes high rates of suicide and deaths due to COVID-19, as well as toxic water quality, poor air quality, and soil fungus that exceed the levels considered safe for human health. In fact, prisons are a particular hotbed for coronavirus outbreaks due to the close living quarters, poor sanitation conditions, a lack of personal protective equipment, and a high rate of older adults and those with underlying medical conditions. By some estimates, more than 50% of incarcerated people in California have tested positive for COVID-19, whereas the rate in the general state population is only about 10%.
Further, the report argues, California prisons perpetuate systemic racism. Black and brown people are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates and are given life sentences at higher rates. Only 6.5% of California residents are Black, but Black people make up 28% of the prison population in California. Brian states that we have a moral imperative to address the systemic racism in the criminal legal system. “The movement that we’re a part of that centers the lives and experiences of Black people is in fact the moral and ethical issue of our lives.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom’s budget for 2020-2021 included the planned closure of two state prisons: the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy and the California Correctional Center in Susanville. The closure of these two facilities is estimated to save the state around $304 million annually. The last time California closed a state prison was in 2003 - the Northern California Women’s Facility in Stockton.
CURB’s advocacy involves divesting from police and prison spending and investing in alternative solutions that make communities safer. As part of a statewide collaboration of coalitions across movements for social justice, CURB was involved in the creation of the Budget to Save Lives (B2SL) super collective. The demands of B2SL involve shifting resources from police, prisons, and detention centers to community-based services and alternatives to incarceration, including transitional and permanent housing solutions, behavioral health treatment, and community-based integration services for immigrants and asylum seekers. The strategy is part of a “Care First, Jail Last” vision for healing and rehabilitation of California’s communities, particularly those most impacted by policing, incarceration, family separation, and deportation.
Despite a decrease in California’s prison population, the corrections budget has increased from $8.9 billion (2012-2013) to $13.4 billion (2020-2021), though CURB estimates that the actual overall budget may be over $18.3 billion. Currently, California spends more than $90,000 each year to incarcerate a single person.
How does CURB think that money should be spent instead? “We need to resource the things we know keep us safe and spend less money on harmful entities that are engaged in systemic violence,” says Brian. The focus of their budget advocacy is on transformative and restorative justice - a shift in the state’s response to harm from one of punishment to a model that addresses the conflict or behavior outside of the criminal legal system by centering the needs of the victim and/or survivor, the person responsible for the harm, and the community. At a broad level, they include the following types of investment:
CURB has recently co-sponsored three bills focusing on prison reform and racial justice.
SB 300, the Sentencing Reform Act of 2021 reforms California’s “felony murder special circumstance” law. This law currently allows severe sentences such as the death penalty and life without the possibility of parole to be given to individuals who did not kill nor intend that a person die during a crime. This bill would retroactively reduce the sentences of incarcerated people who were not the actual killer and allow them to be considered for parole release.
AB 256, the Racial Justice for All Act, extends the provisions put in place by the California Racial Justice Act (AB 2542), which was approved by the Governor in September 2020. The Racial Justice Act prohibits the state from seeking a criminal conviction or sentence on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin, so it allows people to demonstrate racism in their arrest or sentencing and challenge their arrest or conviction. However, this law is not retroactive. AB 256 extends these protections to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals so that they can also seek racial justice.
SB 483, the “RISE Retro” bill applies the provisions previously passed in SB 180 (2017) and SB 136 (2019) to all those currently incarcerated. These two bills made certain sentencing enhancements invalid, including one-year enhancements for prior felonies and three-year enhancements for each prior drug convictions.SB 483 was signed into law this fall and goes into effect January 1, 2022.
Consensus building is a crucial part of CURB’s work. To do that, they commit to training those who will be working alongside them. “So much of the history of incarceration has been hidden, by design,” says Brian. For this reason, public education is an important part of building capacity within the organizations of the coalition — by mentoring others in developing skills and shared knowledge that will help the coalition move in a more coordinated way. CURB holds 5-10 statewide budget advocacy workshops per year. These workshops cover how the state budget works and how organizations can work together to impact that budget.
Another aspect of CURB’s training is in media advocacy. This includes spokesperson trainings, Media 101 workshops, and trainings in narrative building and storytelling. The focus of these trainings is to develop the skills needed to communicate about issues in a way that is impactful. Their goal is to develop an academy for impacted leaders to gain media advocacy skills.
How to support CURB’s work
What can members of SURJ do to help CURB’s work? Respond to requests for volunteers sent out by email or in the newsletter. For example, during a recent major campaign, SURJ members helped with data entry and analysis, research, writing, and fact checking. Brain says CURB has “lots of brilliant minds with solutions but not enough hands,” and the help from SURJ “models what we need from white people who are committed to Black lives.” Continued support by SURJ members includes going to budget meetings, writing to legislators, and other action items that are mobilized during Action Hours. SURJ also works to raise funds for CURB, for example, at their training events.
Another important way to support CURB is by talking about the issues that CURB is fighting for — prison closure, fewer people in prisons, reducing spending on incarceration, and investing in communities. Talk to friends and family, people in Congress, local government officials, the Governor, and more. And when you do talk about these issues, be sure to use the language that is produced by CURB. In this way, prison closure not only becomes an everyday topic of conversation but also is discussed in a way that shows respect to the people who are incarcerated.
Want to get more involved? CURB is offering a special training for active SURJ members across California on Saturday, January 29th from 1:00-3:00 pm. The training will provide an overview of their prison closure campaign and state budget advocacy. Register here if interested.
To learn more about CURB’s work, follow CURB on Twitter and Instagram.
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