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Criminal Justice Reformers Get A Chilly Reception In California

Across the state, most incumbents successfully fended off progressive challengers during the June 5 primary.

Criminal Justice Reformers Get A Chilly Reception In California

Across the state, most incumbents successfully fended off progressive challengers during the June 5 primary.

California’s Super Tuesday election brought disappointing results for candidates hoping to reform the state’s criminal justice system. In recent years, California has taken a series of steps designed to make the system more fair: shortening sentences for incarcerated people, for instance, and diverting low-level offenders from lengthy stays in prison. But the state’s district attorneys have consistently stood in the way of reform.

Heading into yesterday’s primary, a handful of challengers hoping to unseat prosecutors across the state aimed to change that dynamic. Meanwhile, several reformer candidates also vied for sheriff and judicial positions, looking to remake the path from arrest to adjudication. But by the end of Tuesday evening, it was clear that the nascent national movement to elect reformer district attorneys was heading for major losses. Below, we round up the major criminal justice races and ballot measures from across California.

In San Diego County, public defender Geneviéve Jones-Wright is poised to lose to incumbent District Attorney Summer Stephan. Stephan, who the all-Republican county Board of Supervisors appointed last year, was heavily supported by law enforcement groups that threw hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race. Stephan rose to prominence as a “human trafficking” expert, but has instead focused almost solely on criminalizing sex work, saying she believes there’s no such thing as “voluntary” sex work. Jones-Wright ran on a platform of reforming the use of cash bail, ending the criminalization of homelessness, and testing the county’s large backlog of rape kits. In the county’s sheriff’s race, incumbent Sheriff Bill Gore seemed likely to defeat reform candidate Dave Myers. Gore has presided over a county jail system where since 2007 more than 120 people have died in custody . Myers, a commander at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department who was running on a platform to decriminalize homelessness and increase drug treatment for arrested users, said he was reassigned to a “broom closet” after the announcement of his candidacy.

In San Francisco County, four public defenders running to unseat Superior Court judges appointed by Republican governors were handily defeated. The candidates, who were all either Black or Latinx, faced pushback from local Democrats worried about the politicization of the bench. The candidates argued they were trying bring new perspectives to a city with stark racial disparities in policing. Local reformers did rack up two wins, however: Proposition F, which guarantees the right to legal counsel for residents facing eviction, won with 56 percent of the vote after a strong push by the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Proposition H, which would have given San Francisco police officers less restrictive guidelines for their use of stun guns, and was promoted by the officers’ union, was defeated.

In Alameda County, incumbent Nancy O’Malley handily defeated civil rights lawyer Pamela Price. O’Malley faced criticism after it was revealed that her campaign had accepted $10,000 from Fremont cops while investigating them in connection to two fatal shootings. Her challenger, Price, highlighted the racial disparities in O’Malley’s charging practices, promising wholesale changes in the way the county prosecutes young people.

In Sacramento County, Anne-Marie Schubert, the incumbent district attorney, fended off  Noah Phillips, a prosecutor who ran on a platform calling for increased police accountability. Schubert, a Republican, had been endorsed by many of the city’s Democratic politicians, but came under severe scrutiny after the police killing of Stephon Clark in March. Schubert then centered her campaign on taking credit for the apprehension of the alleged “Golden State Killer,” running campaign ads that said, “She protects us.”

In Santa Clara County, Judge Aaron Persky was recalled from the bench following backlash by activists over what they viewed as a “lenient” sentence of a Stanford student to six months in jail for sexually assaulting and attempting to rape an unconscious woman outside a party at the university. But critics of the recall say its supporters underestimate the impact of the sentence on the life of the student, Brock Turner, and are seeking vengeance over justice.

In Contra Costa County, incumbent District Attorney Diana Becton is most likely headed to a runoff against Paul Graves in November. Becton, a judge who was appointed district attorney in September, had strong support from reform groups, who applauded her stances on pursuing treatment instead of jail time, and changing how the county prosecutes low-level crimes. Graves, who was supported by law enforcement groups, spent 22 years as a prosecutor at the Contra Costa DA’s office, where his former boss, Mark Peterson, had resigned in disgrace after taking thousands of dollars from his campaign account and spending it on meals, clothes, and other personal needs.

In Yolo County, it appears incumbent Jeff Reisig has defeated public defender Dean Johansson, although with a high amount of absentee ballots still out, the vote may not be final for weeks. Reisig is part of a statewide movement to roll back parts of Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for certain crimes, and he is actively circumventing it by charging people with felonies for low-level offenses.

And finally, in San Bernardino County, it appears that challenger Jason Anderson has defeated incumbent Michael Ramos. Anderson, the most conservative of the reform candidates on the ballot this June, has called for more resources to veterans and mental health courts as well as bolstering drug court funding. Ramos has been a vocal death penalty supporter, and has spoken out against the possible exoneration of Kevin Cooper, who was convicted in a high-profile murder case rife with police misconduct.

High Schooler Faced 25 Years on the Sex Offender Registry--For Engaging In Oral Sex

At a Pennsylvania school, an 18-year-old female student was arrested for a consensual sexual act with a 16-year-old boy.

High Schooler Faced 25 Years on the Sex Offender Registry--For Engaging In Oral Sex

At a Pennsylvania school, an 18-year-old female student was arrested for a consensual sexual act with a 16-year-old boy.

In February, 18-year-old Mariea Starr, a senior at Waynesboro Area Senior High School in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, faced a terrifying, life-altering punishment: the possibility of 25 years on the sex offender registry.

But the offense in question was not a sexual assault or the molestation of a child; instead, it stemmed from a Dec. 7 incident in which Starr was caught by another student allegedly performing oral sex on a boy in a school stairwell.

A female student told the school’s assistant principal that she witnessed Starr getting up from her knees in the stairwell while the boy quickly pulled up his pants, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed by Officer Matthew Gordon of the Waynesboro Area School District Police.

Because Starr had turned 18 two months before the incident and the boy she allegedly engaged in oral sex with, while also a high-school student, was a minor, Starr was charged with misdemeanor open lewdness and felony unlawful contact with minors which carries a Tier II sex offender designation.

Tier II sex offenders are considered a moderate risk of reoffending but are nonetheless subject to registration requirements for 25 years, including being photographed by Pennsylvania State Police twice a year.

While statutory sexual assault in Pennsylvania requires the victim to be under 16 years old and that there be more than a four-year age difference between the victim and the defendant, the charge of unlawful contact with minors stipliates only that the defendant be 18 years or older and the victim be under 18.

Gordon brought the case without oversight from the district attorney’s office or school district administration because in Pennsylvania some school police officers can file criminal charges through a magisterial district judge without DA review. The magisterial district judge holds a preliminary arraignment, where bail is set, and a preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to the trial court level.

District attorneys prosecute these cases but are not required to take part in them until they reach the trial court level.

The point at which the district attorney gets involved depends on the charges and procedures set up by individual Pennsylvania counties.

Franklin County District Attorney Matthew Fogal told The Appeal that his office did not review Starr’s case until the preliminary hearing in March.

Furthermore, no one in the school district has the duty to review the possible penalties against students like Starr and make the decision to either support the student or approve the charges, according to Waynesboro Area School District Superintendent Todd Kline.

On April 11, however, Fogal reduced the charges against Starr to open lewdness. She was sentenced to 12 months’ probation and will not be placed on the registry.

Nonetheless, Starr will graduate from high school with a criminal record, which will significantly affect her educational and job opportunities. If she applies to college, Starr will have to disclose her conviction on her college application and will compete against students without a conviction. Her criminal conviction may also limit her ability to receive student financial aid. Students with a misdemeanor or felony conviction may be barred from receiving financial aid administered through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Administration, according to the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction. And when she enters the job market, Starr will be in the running against applicants who do not have a criminal record.

Starr is far from the only student that Gordon, the school police officer, has sent into the criminal justice system.

More than 70 student arrests have been made since Gordon’s tenure began in 2014, according to annual safety reports filed the district with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The likelihood that a disciplinary incident would result in an arrest or a referral to law enforcement increased roughly 21 percent in Gordon’s first three years as an officer compared to the three years before he began the job, safety reports show.

In 2016, Gordon, a retired Pennsylvania State Police trooper, filed misdemeanor forgery charges against two students for simply providing fake doctors notes to excuse their absence from school.

In one case, the student confessed to faking the notes before the end of the school year, but Gordon waited until after the student graduated to file charges.

Gordon also charged two students with possessing weapons on school grounds.

In both cases, however, a knife was found secured inside a vehicle on school grounds. There is no court record indicating that the students attempted to bring a weapon into the school, brandished it on school grounds or attempted to assault another student with a weapon.

In the most recent weapons possession case, the student told Gordon that he had been working on his vehicle but forgot to remove the knife before coming to school, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed by Gordon.

The Waynesboro school district created its own police in 2014 in a 5-4 vote, according to school board meeting minutes.

In a petition to form its police department, the district stated it needed a police officer to “protect the students, staff, and property … and maintain an orderly and safe learning environment.”

But annual safety reports, which date back to the 1999-2000 school year, show that there have been only two reported incidents where a firearm was brought on school grounds. And the district has never been involved in a school shooting situation.

One board member who voted against the measure argued it would lead to more criminal charges against students while another said she felt the district was treating students “like criminals,” according to the Herald-Mail.

“There is nothing that shows [police in schools] makes students safer,” Barbara Fedders, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, told The Appeal.

Fedders cited research by Jason Nance, a University of Florida Levin College of Law associate professor, that found that when police are present in school, disciplinary issues are much more likely to be referred to law enforcement instead of being handled internally. For example, 19 percent of attacks Nance reviewed in schools without a police officer were referred to law enforcement compared to 50 percent in schools with an officer.

In his paper “Students, Police, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” Nance pointed to evidence that police officers in schools can actually lead to more students feeling alienated, which can create distrust and in turn more disorder and violence.

“I worry that putting police in schools is going to seem like the moderate solution as we talk about things like arming teachers” in the wake of school shootings, Fedders said.

Indeed, the rate of student disciplinary incidents has increased since officer Gordon was hired in 2014, according to the annual safety reports. Twenty times as many students were issued citations and five times as many students received a probation sentence for incidents at the school district during the 2016-17 school year compared to the year before Gordon was hired, according to annual reports filed the district with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

This means that, along with a diploma, dozens of students will carry a criminal record with them as they graduate from high school.

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'Whores Will Rise'

As part of International Whores' Day, hundreds gathered in New York City to protest new anti-sex work laws.

Dominique, part of the sex worker mutual care fund Lysistrata, speaking at International Whores Day, New York
Photo by the author

'Whores Will Rise'

As part of International Whores' Day, hundreds gathered in New York City to protest new anti-sex work laws.

Hundreds of sex workers and their supporters spilled into the streets around the historic Stonewall Inn on Saturday demanding an end to laws that endanger them. The New York City protest was part of International Whores’ Day (IWD), marking the anniversary of sex workers’ occupation of churches throughout France in 1975 in opposition to anti-prostitution policing. This year, the day took on new urgency with the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, a federal measure targeting online sex work signed into law by President Trump in April that has also galvanized sex workers across the United States. Spirited IWD protests were seen in cities including Chicago, Oakland, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis.

Since the passage of SESTA/FOSTA this spring, sex workers have reported an increase in encounters with abusive clients and with law enforcement, the result, they say, of the websites on which they advertise their services—like Cityvibe and Craigslist’s personals section— going offline due to fear of prosecution. In addition to losing their advertisements, online forums which sex workers relied on to share information about safer sex work and dangerous clients have explicitly barred sex workers in the United States, or simply disappeared. SESTA/FOSTA has pushed online sex work further to the margins, making it much more dangerous; one sign, hoisted by a demonstrator in a black ski mask and pale pink sunglasses read, “FOSTA has a bodycount.”

The New York protest began with a march from Stonewall and ended with a raucous rally in Washington Square Park, one of the largest sex workers’ rights demonstrations ever held in the United States. Many of the speakers acknowledged those they already lost—long before SESTA/FOSTA—to violence. “I was crying back here because I have buried so many children. I’ve seen so many girls get murdered,” said Ceyenne Doroshow, the founder and director of GLITS, a New York City-based organization led by and supporting transgender sex workers. Earlier this year, Doroshow defended herself from a man she said attacked her, and then she had to fight criminal charges brought against her by the Queens district attorney as a result of the incident. Even after her attorney presented detailed accounts of abuse, as The Appeal reported, the DA refused to dismiss the case outright. To those gathered in Saturday’s searing heat to protest SESTA/FOSTA, Doroshow proclaimed, “Before I did this, I was a ho. I will always be a ho!” There were cheers and applause. “I’m gonna survive. You’re gonna survive.”

The protest was organized in part by sex workers’ rights activists campaigning as Survivors Against SESTA, formed this winter, who helped make the legislation a national issue. One Survivors Against SESTA activist, who did not use a name because she fears for her safety, addressed the rally, at that point around 400 strong. They repeated her words, loudly and in unison, to better amplify them across the protest. “I stand in awe of our resilience,” she said. “Last week, my friend was assaulted by a new client she was unable to screen, after FOSTA. … Legislators know they are killing us. In private conversations they say, we understand. But when it’s time to vote, they conveniently forget.”

Protestors at International Whores Day march from Stonewall to Washington Square Park, International Whores Day, New York
Photo by the author

To directly assist those who are struggling with a loss of income in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, sex workers have raised funds for and from each other. Dominique, who helps run the sex worker mutual care fund Lysistrata, explained that the funds empower sex workers to refuse risky work. “It is downright nauseating,” said Dominique, “to see our mutual care fund strained and our members facing ever-magnifying physical and financial stress after the passage of SESTA/FOSTA while millions pour into the coffers of anti-prostitution organizations…. Let me make this abundantly clear, sex work is work!… It is an industry not of victims, and not even an industry of necessarily happy hookers—and that is okay.”

One of SESTA/FOSTA’s most vocal supporters in Congress, Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York, now faces a Democratic primary challenge from Suraj Patel, who attended the protest and urges the repeal of SESTA/FOSTA. “I implore our representatives, current and new—potentially,” said Dominique, “to cast off your old tired ethics!” (This was a reference to one of the first U.S. sex workers’ rights organizations, COYOTE, formed in 1973, and whose name was an acronym for those same words.)

Campaigns like Survivors Against SESTA are new, but the demands they made are decades old. Survivors Against SESTA timed its actions with International Whores’ Day, a day of celebration and protest that honors the sex workers who occupied churches in five French cities, beginning with Lyon on June 2, 1975, to protest anti-prostitution policing. When police moved in to remove them, the interior minister—who was also the head of police—claimed their protests were a front for those who profit from the “white-slave trade.”

Such attempts to link sex work to sexual slavery live on: They were central to the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, which was described by supporters as a means to save women and girls from being sold for sex or from being trafficked by threatening legal action against the websites where ads for sex work appeared. Yet some anti-trafficking organizations, including the nation’s largest network of anti-trafficking service providers, joined sex workers in opposition to SESTA/FOSTA, on the grounds that it would increase danger in the sex trade while doing little to protect people from trafficking. One sign seen at Saturday’s protest reflected the unity between sex workers and trafficking survivors on SESTA/FOSTA: “We can all be safe. Let sex workers and sex trafficking survivors live.”

As the rally occupied the space surrounding Washington Square Park’s arch, protestors learned that across the river in Brooklyn, one New York woman working to change anti-sex work laws sat in jail. Tiffaney Grissom said that the previous night she was in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, and at about 4 a.m. she was arrested and charged with “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.” Grissom, who is Black and trans, is also a plaintiff on a class action suit challenging this law, charging it is unconstitutional and that the New York Police Department enforce it disproportionately against Black and Latinx women.

Sixteen hours later, Grissom was still waiting for her court appearance. When I met her in 2016, she told me she had engaged in sex work sometimes, but most of the time that she was charged with loitering she was just hanging out. “It’s a way to arrest a lot of people for nothing,” said Cynthia H. Conti-Cook, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society, who is involved in bringing the class action suit against the loitering law and who Grissom called after her Saturday arrest.  “It seemed like an easy arrest,” Grissom told The Appeal just outside the Brooklyn court where she was released just before 9 p.m. on Saturday. “I don’t need to have to prove myself as to why I’m outside, or defend myself for being outside.”

Though SESTA/FOSTA is what drove hundreds of sex workers and supporters to Washington Square Park on Saturday, it is just one of many U.S. laws criminalizing sex workers not only for their work, or the right to be in public, but for their survival. Near the rally’s close, the words of Alisha Walker, an incarcerated sex worker, were heard. In 2016, Walker, a Black woman in her 20s, was convicted in Cook County, Illinois, of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison for defending herself against a client who demanded unprotected sex and then attacked her and a co-worker. One of the Survivors Against SESTA organizers, Red, is part of the Justice for Alisha Walker defense campaign, and shared Alisha’s statement for International Whores’ Day at the rally. Red asked the crowd again to repeat Alisha’s words so that even those crowding the edges of the rally could make them out.  “Why is everyone scared of whores?” asked Alisha, through Red. “Well, shit. Maybe they should be.” The crowd roared, then repeated along: “Whores. Will. Rise.”

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