Change has come to the criminal justice system in America’s most populous state. California’s arrest rate last year dropped to its lowest level ever recorded, the result of a voter-approved initiative to reclassify several nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors. Funds saved by the drop in arrests are being shifted to other priorities like victim services and mental health treatment. Meanwhile, state residents with criminal records are currently benefitting from the largest opportunity in U.S. history to remove certain felonies from their records. Supporting these policy changes is a first-of-its-kind statewide network of crime victims, including survivors of violent crimes, who have lent their moral authority to reform efforts.
A linchpin of all these developments is a former punk drummer turned prosecutor named Lenore Anderson. She was the co-author and campaign chair of Proposition 47, the state ballot initiative that reclassified several felonies, and the nonprofit she leads organized the network of crime survivors. With big victories under her belt, Anderson is expanding her focus. Her new organization, Alliance for Safety and Justice, will deploy a similar model in a host of other states with large prison populations. The group is organizing new networks of crime survivors and pushing more states to shift resources from incarceration to effective alternatives.
“Our most important goal is safety,” she said. “Over-incarceration is really unsafe. So our intervention is to ask, how are we spending our safety dollars?”
We spoke with Lenore Anderson for Sophia, a project to collect life lessons from fascinating people. She shared personal stories of the lives caught up in a broken justice system, and of the alternative approaches that are rising to replace it.
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You said of your younger years, “I made a lot of mistakes. For a time, it wasn’t clear I would make it safely into adulthood.” What shifted you to the path you’re on now?
(Laughs) Hindsight is always much more linear than reality, right? I was a troublemaker as a kid. I got in trouble with neighbors, parents, police, teachers, and it wasn’t until I was older that I understood that the help that was offered me is not the help that is offered to kids of color in my exact same position. In realizing that, I made a commitment to work on racial equity and criminal justice reform for my career.
I was in California in the 80s. During the exact same time that I was in high school, the number of tough-on-crime laws that were being passed in the legislature, the number of laws that were focused on the juvenile predator ― that was when it was occurring. And at that same time, I’m in high school ― middle-class white female ― doing things that are not that different from what a lot of young kids of color would be doing at that time in their lives, and the response to me was one of forgiveness.
Police would take me home instead of taking me to juvenile hall; my parents had resources to get me counseling and therapy; teachers let me pass classes that I didn’t actually pass. There was a perception that what I was doing were cries for help, and we need to figure out how to help her get on the right path; to see me as one that needed to be protected through my juvenile confusion to adulthood.
Fast-forward ten years and I’m talking to parents of incarcerated youth. These are young people whose stories are not that markedly different from mine, with the exception of the response ― the exception of what police did, what parents had resources to do, what teachers did. I think that’s really why I do the work I do.
I didn’t go straight to college after high school. Eventually I went to junior college, mainly because I needed health insurance, and I enjoyed it. I did really well and ended up at UC Berkeley, and there I was very much interested in social justice. I go to an event where one of the speakers is Cornelius Hall, whose son Jerrold Hall was shot in the back by a law enforcement officer working for BART [the Bay Area’s rapid transit system] upon suspicion that he had stolen a Walkman.
That was a pivotal moment for me because, you know, half my friends stole Walkmans. No doubt, no question, I was one of the many teenagers who could have been Jerrold Hall, with the difference being he’s an African-American male and I’m a white female. I think that was one of the key moments where I was clear on the privilege that I had benefitted from.
What we’ve done is just so far beyond the number of people we’ve stuffed into prisons. We actually took generations of people, mostly low-income communities of color, and completely stripped hope and opportunities for basic economic stability and dignity. And we called it public safety. - Lenore Anderson
You’ve made it a major priority to elevate the voices of victims of crime.
I worked with parents of incarcerated youth for a long time. We were organizing to replace youth prisons with community alternatives. Then I was in the district attorney’s office in San Francisco, and I similarly saw the gap between who is commonly victimized by crime and where the resources and attention go in the criminal justice system.
So when we started Californians for Safety and Justice, the mission was to replace over-incarceration with new safety priorities. And to me there has been a real big missing voice here ― the people who are most commonly victimized by crime. What are their current experiences with the criminal justice system? And what would they prefer to see?
When you look at the tough-on-crime era, they had a pretty successful media strategy. That was a 30-plus year march of dramatic expansion of a public system, dramatic expansion of the number of people incarcerated. And there were some myths that have been propping it up. One of the myths is, incarceration is the best way you protect public safety. The other myth is that that’s what crime victims want.
Well, most of the people that have been victims of crime had never been the center of public policy making during the tough-on-crime era. So the question is, how can we be more authentic in integrating the experiences of people who are victimized by crime and violence in what we’re going to replace over-incarceration with?
Safety has obviously got to be a top priority. There’s possibly no more important role that government can play in the lives of its citizenry. And to know how we’re going to deliver safety, you would think that we would talk a lot more to people who have experienced a lack of safety. We really have not. So from the outset, I wanted to make sure that we had a strategy for incorporating the voices of the victims of crime.
Man, [Freedom To Marry] were great, weren’t they? We certainly aspire to be that effective and that successful. They’ve changed the country in a pretty short period of time.
In terms of what we’re doing in states, we’re supporting local state-based advocacy organizations to advance criminal justice reform. We’re building crime survivor leadership to advance criminal justice reform. And we’re trying to advance public policies in states that reduce over-incarceration and replace spending on prisons with spending that’ll get us safer. Smarter safety investments.
Our focus has been the state systems because that’s where the majority of the money is and the majority of the people are. Lenore Anderson
The role of the crime survivor work is valuable in terms of the substance, valuable in terms of a missing voice, and also valuable in terms of the political dynamic around criminal justice reform. The tough-on-crime era was very successful at framing all of those policies as “the pro-victim approach,” so we’ve tried to put forward an alternative vision that can allow us to see how those policies have been flawed. Those tough-on-crime policies actually haven’t helped the majority of crime victims, and so here’s the majority of crime victims ― here’s who they are and these are the kinds of things that they want to see. Promoting their voices has both substantive value as well as political value.
In terms of political strategy, we’re looking at the top 15 incarceration population states in the country. A smaller number of states are disproportionately responsible for a lot of the over-incarceration in the country. When you look at national incarceration rates and you start to see them come down a little bit starting in 2012, it’s almost all California. One state has that much of an impact on that curve. Why? Because we’re such a large state. We have a huge general population and a very, very large incarceration population. When we’re talking about making big change, it makes sense to go to the big states, so we’re looking at the top 15 large incarceration population states ― it’s Florida, it’s Texas, it’s Illinois, Michigan, places where a lot of people live and a lot of people are incarcerated.
Are you focusing at all on federal legislation?
We just released a report on crime victims and we both hope and anticipate that it affects the conversation on federal approaches to criminal justice. But our focus has been the state systems because that’s where the majority of the money is and the majority of the people are.
You just surveyed crime victims nationwide about criminal justice issues. What did they say?
Lots of things that are counterintuitive. The common assumption is that crime victims want vengeance, or that they want the toughest possible longest sentence. What we found is actually quite different.
We found that the majority of crime victims want rehabilitation over punishment. The majority of crime victims want shorter sentences and prevention spending over long sentences. We found the majority of crime victims think that prosecutors should spend more time focused on neighborhood problem solving and rehabilitation, even if it means fewer convictions ― even if it means fewer convictions. Those kinds of findings really stand out, and these are diverse crime victims from all backgrounds across the country.
There are enough people at this point that have had direct personal experience with the failings of our current approach to criminal justice that pretty much everybody agrees that most people get worse in prison, not better. How can that possibly be a good investment? Hearing that from victims I think is a really powerful intervention on the conversation on what we should be doing.
You told the New York Times, “My highest hope is that we start to really see some innovation that we haven’t seen in the past.” What sorts of criminal justice innovations are you impressed by right now?
There is great innovation happening in the sphere of safety and justice. For the most part, they are boutique programs, they’re on the side, they’re operating on a dime. Getting those things to scale is the issue. We know what to do. The problem is, it’s not the centerpiece.
So we have general run-of-the-mill felony calendars that all day churn out the same sort of stuff. And then you have the neighborhood court program that operates in one neighborhood, that’s holistic in its approach, that has caseworkers on site that evaluate the drivers behind why someone’s involved in crime and addresses those drivers, like addiction or mental illness or homelessness. Then the person is stable, the crime stops happening, the neighborhood’s in better shape. Those things are often on the side. So I can definitely share the things that work well and are exciting, but also recognize the main issue is scaling them up.
So neighborhood court programs are excellent models of what could be done differently, especially when it comes to cycles of low-level crime.
There are a lot of wonderful restorative justice programs. They’re really powerful because they involve the crime victim in the resolution of the case in a way that the traditional criminal justice system can’t and won’t. A lot of the members of our Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice team have become inspired around criminal justice reform precisely because of a restorative justice experience that they had in their own dealings with the crime that occurred. It is really a missing piece that victims should have when it comes to solving crimes, up to and including serious crime. That’s a huge one.
There are a lot of excellent diversion programs. There’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion that comes out of Seattle; this is where police officers say to people who are struggling with addiction: “Hey, I won’t arrest you if you go into X treatment and case management program.” It’s more of a public health approach, understanding that people may relapse, that that’s part of the process of addiction. Law enforcement officers and case managers are trying to get this person out of the cycle of addiction and that is the goal of the program. It’s very different than a goal of, “Hey, I saw you on the street again, you’re still possessing drugs, we’re going to arrest you once again.”
So, diversion programs; all of the collaborative court models, in particular the community court models; and then restorative justice stand out to me as some of the things that have really been missing in terms of priorities.
I’ll mention one other, the Trauma Recovery Center model. We talk a lot in criminal justice reform about people committing repeat crimes and recidivism rates. But there’s another less-discussed reality: the people who are most likely to be victims of crime have been victims before. Their pathway to recovery is one that we completely miss when it comes to our safety investments, and this is something that we’ve been pushing a lot.
What if we had a better sense of who around us are victims of crime that are vulnerable to being repeat victims of crime because they haven’t gotten the help that they need to recover? There’s this model in San Francisco called the Trauma Recovery Center, and we’ve been supporting them. Any victim can use it, and when you come in, you get help filling out your victim compensation forms, but you also get on-site access to mental health counseling, relocation assistance, and other things, they’re all incorporated.
So we found this one program and started working with our state senator. We’ve now gotten enough pieces of legislation and budget allocations passed in the last four years such that in California, there are now nine Trauma Recovery Centers across the state. One of them, it’s called Fathers & Families of San Joaquin, in San Joaquin County, a remarkable organization. They also work with kids who have been incarcerated and kids who are on probation. So right there in that one community center, they have the awareness and understanding of the risks that kids face to become victims of crime, and also are helping kids who have committed crimes get off that pathway and get onto productive lives. Really amazing stuff that’s popping up.
The majority of crime victims want rehabilitation over punishment. The majority of crime victims want shorter sentences and prevention spending over long sentences. We found the majority of crime victims think that prosecutors should spend more time focused on neighborhood problem solving and rehabilitation. Lenore Anderson
And how do you view the ideal role of prisons?
The Vera Institute of Justice took a group of people from the U.S. to Germany to see their system. One of them was the Santa Clara District Attorney, Jeff Rosen, and hearing him talk about what that looks like is really interesting. He’s written a few pieces on it and given some speeches, you should check it out if you can because I think he paints an interesting picture of an actual real system today that works.
For example, in Germany, the people who run the prisons, it’s a highly-regarded job. They are Ph.D.’s in criminology and sociology, they understand rehabilitation and so forth. It’s taken very differently in that regard.
The proper role of our criminal justice system is to stop cycles of crime, and the vast majority of ways to best do that are at the community level; if people are a danger and cannot be in the community, then the priority responsibility is to rehabilitate them during the time that they’re separated from society.
So the focus is on the pathways for someone to safely return to the community. A system that emphasized that and focused on that would look radically different than what we have now, and it would be for a smaller number of people. Because if we had the kinds of programs in place on the front-end at the community level that offered alternatives to incarceration ― diversion and mental health treatment, drug treatment, all those kinds of things ― you’d see a lot fewer people get far downfield in their involvement in crime.
What are some books that had a substantial impact on your intellectual development?
Certainly Maya Angelou was very influential. “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” I read that when I was young, a very influential book, taught me perseverance and growth through challenge.
And when I was in college, Frederick Douglass. I had a college professor tell me there are only about 200 written autobiographies by people who were enslaved in this country. Slavery lasted over 200 years and there are only 200 autobiographies actually in print. Isn’t that amazing? It’s just horrifying that we have that little direct knowledge of what this country did. At any rate, Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography was really impactful.
Violent crime in California was up about 10 percent last year. Why do you think that is?
There are a couple of things that are important to note. One is, most criminologists would say you want to look at crime trends for longer periods of time to be able to accurately evaluate where they’re going and why.
Two, we know that crime trends are often very localized. A severe challenge in one jurisdiction may not be the same in another. So when you break out what’s happening in San Francisco versus what’s happening in Monterey versus what’s happening in Fresno or Richmond, it looks pretty different. It doesn’t look quite like there’s one statewide trend. You can see a lot of diversity in how crime is happening. For example, it’s down in Oakland, it’s down in Pasadena.
There are a lot of jurisdictions where it’s going up and I would say that there’s a lot more that needs to be researched and understood to get a sense of what’s happening. Violent crime is certainly up in other parts of the country, as well. This requires close attention.
The other thing I will say is that every reform that occurs does need to result in adaptive practices at the local level. Sometimes those adaptations happen and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what you’re gonna do now that a particular crime no longer means automatic incarceration. What are the other strategies you’re going to use to address these things? We’ve been clear, as it relates to Proposition 47, that implementation requires that locals change their practices. If locals do or don’t, that could be having an impact as well.
There are enough people at this point that have had direct personal experience with the failings of our current approach to criminal justice that pretty much everybody agrees that most people get worse in prison, not better. Lenore Anderson
You’ve been doing this work for years. Is there a moment that stands out when you knew you’d made a major impact?
Proposition 47 took six crimes, changed them from felony to misdemeanor, and applied that retroactively very broadly. Anyone in California who had one of these crimes on their old criminal record can apply to get that felony removed. Rough estimates are that there are about 1 million Californians that may be eligible for record change under Proposition 47.
So we’re like: Let’s tell the public about this. We did outreach to grassroots organizations, we did billboards, we did television, radio, and then we decided we wanted to organize a large-scale fair, like a community fair, where we would have free lawyers on site, we would have hot dogs, music, and get people to come on down and get their records changed.
So it was Exposition Park in Los Angeles, and we got 150 lawyer volunteers all trained up, and they came to volunteer. And we got 150 event volunteers. We had no idea how many people were going to show up. Just no idea, we’re rolling the dice here.
The event starts at 11am on a Sunday and our team shows up at seven in the morning, and there are people who are already in line. At seven in the morning. My staff is like, “Hey, you know we don’t start until 11am?” And people have lawn chairs, sleeping bags. The response from the people in line was, “Oh no, we’ve been here since four in the morning. This is a really important day for us.” Five thousand people showed up at this event!
Watch the video below for scenes from the Los Angeles record change event.
I mean, it was totally overwhelming, total chaos, computer systems break down (laughs), we need to get more water. We had no idea, we had no idea. And the stories of the impact of these felony convictions on people’s lives was devastating and overwhelming. The grandma who can’t get her granddaughter out of foster care because she has some drug possession conviction from like 30 years ago. The guy who’s been only able to find part-time work for a decade, even though he has three kids. The woman who wants to get a student loan to go to college. I mean, it just goes on and on and on. There were moments where it was just tears.
And it is overwhelming. How are we ever going to possibly be able to help all these people ― not just on this day but in this country? What we’ve done is just so far beyond the number of people we’ve stuffed into prisons. We actually took generations of people, mostly low-income communities of color, and completely stripped hope and opportunities for basic economic stability and dignity. And we called it public safety.
Looking back, would you have handled your own education any differently?
I sure wish I took high school more seriously than I did because I probably would have gone straight to college. On the other hand, perhaps I needed those years for growing up. I certainly encourage younger folks to take high school seriously and go to college when they can. I am grateful for the junior college system in California. I think community colleges are critical tools. Not everyone can go to a four-year.
There’s so much about education that is a luxury, in terms of the chance to grapple with ideas, learn as much as you can, absorb as much information as you can. Especially as a mom and working all the time, the opportunity to just read and learn is not the luxury that I have. I really wish that I’d spent more time in the libraries. I really wish I had taken more opportunities to learn everything I possibly could from the brilliant teachers that I was around.
Think of it as this very very short period of time where you’re actual job is to learn. I mean, that’s the coolest thing ever. And it’s not permanent. That’s a very, very short window. So absorb as much as you can.
I spent some time in other countries while I was in law school, and I remember a colleague of mine in Guatemala asking me all kinds of questions about the library at the law school that I went to. It was just such a remarkable thing that there would be this many books. Recognize that college and law school in particular are serious privileges and you should take them seriously and absorb everything you can.
To know how we’re going to deliver safety, you would think that we would talk a lot more to people who have experienced a lack of safety. We really have not. Lenore Anderson
Anything else to mention?
It’s funny to me that this is even of interest to you, to be honest. Criminal justice reform is a totally new thing to all of a sudden be a very big issue. For the majority of the time I’ve been working on criminal justice issues, it has not been a major topic in the media or a major subject of presidential candidates, all this kind of stuff. That change just in the time that I’ve been doing this work has been interesting.
I’m really hopeful that means we’ve reached a point where we can have a breakthrough on this issue in the country. It certainly wasn’t what I would have expected 10 or 15 years ago. I mean, we now have Democrats and Republicans talking about some of the same things when it comes to criminal justice reform. Wayne Hughes Jr. was a major backer of Proposition 47, a very prominent conservative business leader here in California. Newt Gingrich endorsed Proposition 47. It’s just kind of amazing, right?
It’s such an exciting time for criminal justice reform and the possibility of completely changing how the country understands safety. What that will mean for millions of people is really humbling to me. It’s so important that we turn this moment into something meaningful, that we actually take the opportunity that I think we’re being handed right now.
What’s going to make the biggest difference? How are we going to turn mass incarceration into something of the past, something that we recognize was a huge mistake in terms of public policy and human development? That’s a very humbling but exciting opportunity that I see that exists right now in this country, and something that I don’t think I foresaw happening so soon.
This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length.