Sleepless in Palo Alto — Challenging the Criminalization of Homelessness

By William Safford

Picture 1On June 19, 2014, a federal court of appeals struck down a Los Angeles city ordinance which criminalized vehicle dwelling.  The court held that the law, which banned the use of a vehicle as “living quarters”, was unconstitutionally vague and subject to arbitrary, discriminatory enforcement.  This may seem like a Los Angeles problem, but to those immersed in Peninsula politics, it sounds eerily familiar.

Unconstitutional vagueness is a funny concept.  It sounds like a linguistic problem – tighten up the language and the law will be fine.  Yet, this decision recognizes that laws cannot be fundamentally unclear.  If you and I cannot tell what is illegal, and neither can the police, then how can enforcement ever be reasonable?  The answer, said the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, is that it cannot.  If the police arbitrarily decide who to enforce against, then there is no equality of justice, and the law becomes reminiscent of “English feudal poor laws designed to prevent the physical movement and economic ascension of the lower class.”

Why is this a Palo Alto issue?  Because the Palo Alto vehicle habitation ordinance (VHO) is identical in every important way.  Both laws criminalize living in a car, but leave important questions wide open.  The Palo Alto law attempts to define “human habitation” as “the use of a vehicle for a dwelling place, including but not limited to, sleeping, eating or resting”, but if anything, this just makes things less clear. Continue reading

De-Buggin’ NYC

Recently, De-Bug’s ACJP was invited to share, connect, and build with some great legal advocates in New York: the New York Federal Defender’s Office, the Bronx Defenders, and the New York Federal Criminal Defense Bar. We were honored to share our work from the Westcoast, and see how our approach to transforming the courts can be interpreted, and woven into the already tremendous advocacy happening in New York. We started with a presentation, training, and discussion with the Bronx Defenders. We discussed our methodology of community organizing, and given that they are known for the concept of “holistic defense”, we talked about our style of a term we are called “participatory defense.” We got to brainstorm and dialogue with their organizers who are spearheading campaigns to protect the rights of the community. We also did a workshop on our social biography video model. At the New York Federal Defender’s Office, we gave a day long interactive instructional training on how to produce social biography videos to their team of attorneys, investigators, and social workers. They took right to it, and we are looking forward to see them produce social biography videos to reduce sentences and charges. Our final day was a presentation to other federal defenders — both public and private — on the process and value of social biography videos. It was an amazing trip, and we look forward to building more collaborations that ultimately are about keeping families together, transforming the courts, and challenging mass incarceration! Here are some flix:

Presenting at the Bronx Defenders.

Presenting at the Bronx Defenders.

Talking organizing with the Bronx Defenders.

Talking organizing with the Bronx Defenders.

NY Federal Defenders working on producing a mock social bio video.

NY Federal Defenders working on producing a mock social bio video.

Presenting at criminal defense bar convening.

Presenting at criminal defense bar convening.

De-Bug’s Video and Poster for International Day of Action Against the Drug War

June 26th was the Global Day of Action to end the drug war. De-Bug’s ACJP collaborated with Global Exchange and the Drug Policy Alliance to put out a video and an accompanying poster to be displayed in San Francisco about the impact of drug policy laws that are breaking apart families. The effort was a part of an international campaign to bring attention to the fallout of the drug war. To read more go to: supportdontpunish.org

Bringing our Social Biography Videos to Texas and Missouri

Special thanks to the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office for bringing out De-Bug’s ACJP team last week to share our model of social biography videos to impact the outcome of criminal cases. On the same day some of our staff were presenting the concept in Texas, other staff (Jean Melesaine and Fernando Perez) were sharing with the public defenders of Missouri. What we found deeply inspiring was the profound commitment of these defenders to the rights of the least heard of their state. Particularly given the challenges and limitations around the courts (some obstacles of which we don’t see in California) these public defenders face tremendous battles to fight for the rights of their clients. Yet they perceiver through talent and will — and are bringing loved ones home to their families. We hope to build with them in the future, and are emboldened to see such strong advocates across the country.

Fernando Perez gives a presentation to Missouri public defenders.

Fernando Perez gives a presentation to Missouri public defenders.

ACJP shares examples of our social biography videos to Texas public defenders.

Showing examples of our social biography videos to Texas public defenders.

 

 

 

De-Bug’s Steeda McGruder Highlighted in New York Times Feature on Women and Incarceration

Picture 3Steeda McGruder, the inspiring organizer and leader of Sisters That Been There, was included in the recent comprehensive New York Times multimedia report entitled, “Women Inmates Separate But Not Equal.” The piece also features our friend Piper Kerman, who besides authoring Orange is the New Black, is also a tremendous visionary in the movement to end mass incarceration. Steeda first came to De-Bug with her own vision about creating support systems for women coming home from prison three years ago. She has since made that dream into a successful program called Sisters That Been There. Check out the piece by clicking here or the image!

Silicon Valley Metro Feature Story on How Our “Social Bio Video” Helped Free a Man from a Life Sentence

Feature story on our ACJP work published in the Silicon Valley Metro

Feature story on our ACJP work published in the Silicon Valley Metro

Thanks to the Silicon Valley Metro for the feature story entitled “Non-Violent Three-Strikers Go Free with Justice Project’s Help”! It focuses on how our “social biography video” helped free Willard Brits from a life sentence after 18 years in prison. As you will read in the piece, we teamed up with Willard’s public defender to tell the fuller story of his fatherhood, and the special relationship he had with his amazing daughter — who was also, as is often the case, the best re-entry system of all. Click here, or the photo of the print version, to read the online version of the piece on San Jose Inside. (If you are an attorney and are interested in contracting ACJP to make a “social biography video” for a client, contact us at: video@siliconvalleydebug.org)

Santa Clara County Judicial Candidates Asked to Respond to Issues of Homelessness

Stop the Ban coalition members Aram James and Edie Keating discuss issues with judicial candidate Annrae Angel (in center)

Stop the Ban coalition members Aram James and Edie Keating discuss issues with judicial candidate Annrae Angel (in center)

On May 18th, the Stop the Ban Coalition (STB) — a broad coalition of groups opposed to criminalizing the homeless — held a judicial candidate forum in Palo Alto, CA. Annrae Angel was the only candidate to attend, and she along with candidate Julianne Sylva submitted written responses presented by coalition member Aram James. The forum, and written correspondence, is precedent setting in that it serves as the first time judicial candidates were asked to respond to the homeless community and advocates. Click here to read candidate responses to questions…