In Furtherance of Justice: The Tangled Web of Marijuana Legalization

By Lisa Dyas March 13, 2018

Rubicon's legal team helps our participants with legal assistance on a wide range of issues to equip them to remove barriers that may stand in their way.

This question and answer series – “In Furtherance of Justice” - with Rubicon's staff attorneys explores the many intersections between the law and breaking the cycle of poverty. This week, we talked with one of Rubicon’s Attorneys, Sarah Williams, about Proposition 64, which legalized Marijuana in the State of California in 2016. 

 

Q: What is the history of marijuana legalization in California?

A: Medical marijuana first became legal back in the 90s in California. As time went on, California essentially decriminalized marijuana–law enforcement no longer was arresting people for using and possessing marijuana. Instead, they wrote tickets. The problem was that even this was pretty unfairly enforced, and it’s no surprise that the people who were predominantly getting ticketed were people of color. As the move toward legalization for recreational use gained traction, there actually was push back – not because many people wanted to see harsher punishments for use, but because they didn’t see a need for formal legislation. In affluent communities people just were not being policed for marijuana use.

 

Q: Was Proposition 64 the first attempt at legalization?

A:  Prop 215 was passed in 1996. It legalized medical marijuana. We were the first state to pass that kind of legislation. In 2010, Governor Schwarzenegger signed legislation reducing possession of marijuana from a criminal misdemeanor to a civil infraction – decriminalization.  In that same year, we voted on Prop 19, which would have legalized recreational marijuana use, but it was voted down.

 

Q: So on January 1, 2018, did it become legal to buy and use marijuana anywhere?

A: On November 9, 2016, the day after California voted on Prop 64, it became legal to possess, use or obtain no more than an ounce of marijuana. The parts of the law that impact setting up dispensaries and legally selling it weren’t figured out until January 1, 2018.

 

Q: Practically, what does this mean for the average person who tries to buy marijuana?

A: It means someone can give it to you, and you can legally possess it no matter where you got it, but you can only legally buy it from a licensed dispensary.  

 

Q: How do you police this?

A: It’s tricky!  The person selling it is guilty of a misdemeanor, even though it is totally legal to obtain and use marijuana recreationally.

 

Q: Does this still put a bigger burden or risk on less affluent communities and communities of color?

A: It does. There are plenty of hurdles to get a license to own a dispensary. If you have a criminal record, it’s pretty much impossible to legally sell the thing that you were cited for selling in the first place. There are many separate conversations happening in California on how to allow people of color and communities who have been selling to actually benefit from this legislation. It’s also challenging because marijuana conglomerates are already forming and taking over the industry.

 

Q: For the average Rubicon participant today, what does this legislation mean? What is the impact going forward?

A: Well, you’re still not legally allowed to just smoke on the street, but it does take away this thing that was hanging over people’s heads. If, for example, someone gets pulled over by the cops and they smell marijuana, that alone is no longer probable cause to search the car. You can’t smoke while you’re driving or drive high – that’s the same as a DUI – but lots of peoples’ cars smell like marijuana. Also, if an officer performs a stop-and-frisk and finds marijuana on you, as long as it’s within the limits of possession, it’s fine.  

This legislation is also very similar to Prop 47 in that if you have a marijuana possession conviction, you can file paperwork with the court and it is not a conviction any more, or if you have a sales conviction you can go back, file paperwork and have it reduced to a misdemeanor. It’s not discretionary, the judge must grant the dismissal or felony reduction, but you do have to file the paperwork. Public Defenders are doing that paperwork for people, and it helps if there is a pendingcriminal case. If you no longer have a felony and you get convicted, your sentencing is going to be different. It can really change things for people.

 

Q: What do you think is the next piece of legislation that will make a huge impact for Rubicon participants?

A: Bail reform. I can’t tell you how many people who have sat here and said to me, “I just pled guilty, or no contest, because I just needed to get out of jail.” Your trial is supposed to happen quickly, but most people “waive time” to give their attorney time to actually prepare for the case, and during that time, if you can’t afford bail, you’re just sitting in jail. Often if you need to get out, you just plead to something. Maybe you didn’t do it, or maybe you know there isn’t enough evidence for conviction, but you do it anyways because you just want to move on with your life.

The problem is that many people don’t realize all of the collateral consequences of having that conviction on their record – in the moment, it’s just about getting out of jail. To me, bail reform is the holy grail of where we’re going with our criminal justice reform in California, because without it, these other laws are just not enough.

Lear more about bail reform or donate today to support our work.

Read More

East Bay Times Op-Ed: AB 1250 is a vivid lesson in unintended consequences

By Jonathan Bash August 31, 2017

BY JANE FISCHBERG & DAN GEIGER

August 31, 2017

In government, good intentions frequently have unintended consequences. Unfortunately, many of these unintended consequences can have irreversible impacts, costing lives, chilling innovation and disintegrating community institutions that have reliably served our neighbors for decades.

That’s the case with AB 1250. This legislation has a purportedly noble goal: to protect employment security for public employees.  But in actuality, it constructs an elaborate system that locks out the nonprofits and medical specialists that ensure that some of our community’s most vulnerable residents receive care.

The bill would require all county contractors — many of whom are nonprofit Community Benefit Organizations (CBOs) — to spend a significant portion of their modest budgets on expensive audits, burdensome paperwork and administrative overhead.

In the short run, this would divert critical resources from vital services.

In the long run, it could force hundreds of community organizations to shut their doors, leaving tens of thousands of people with limited resources — including survivors of domestic violence, those living with mental illness and families who are homeless — out in the cold.

Almost 65 percent of Contra Costa County’s mental health services are contracted out to provide much-needed additional capacity to the county’s health delivery system. Partnerships between these organizations and the Health Services Department ensure that residents benefit from the cultural responsiveness, expertise and skill they have to offer, while remaining flexible enough to continually innovate and improve their practices.

Outside contracting is particularly necessary in situations where labor is scarce and few people have hyper-specialized expertise. If a disease is relatively rare, why have the county hospital hire a full-time doctor just to serve a handful of people? It makes much more economic sense for a few counties to contract one shared doctor to serve an entire region.

AB 1250 would make it cost prohibitive for a doctor or health group to choose that arrangement. On top of that, there are many emergency services that must be contracted out to protect public safety. The simple truth is that no health department can employ enough professionals to staff and manage the entire system on its own.

Other organizations, such as Rubicon Programs in the counties of Contra Costa and Alameda, deliver services that help the unemployed find jobs. Due to its nonprofit status, Rubicon is able to pool varying sources of funding to maximize its impact. It also can build close, active partnerships between local businesses and community groups, allowing them to develop comprehensive supports that help individuals find a job, establish a career and achieve economic mobility. This holistic, hands-on approach is not one that a government agency could manage effectively.

It all comes down to this: AB 1250 is an existential threat to our local health care delivery systems. It’s a one-size-fits-all policy that solves no real problems and creates new ones.

The 21 members of the Human Services Alliance of Contra Costa – in partnership with the county – serve more than 360,000 residents. Millions more are served in Alameda, San Francisco and across the state. These organizations already face potential cutbacks instituted by the federal government. They cannot afford to further jeopardize their ability to provide high-quality services.

No one wins when you decrease quality and access to services.

We urge you to contact your State Sens. Nancy Skinner, Bob Wieckowski, Bill Dodd and Steve Glazer. Ask them to vote no on AB 1250.

Dan Geiger is the director of the Human Services Alliance of Contra Costa. Jane Fischberg is the president and CEO of Rubicon Programs, a nonprofit serving Contra Costa and Alameda counties. 

Read the original op-ed at www.eastbaytimes.com.

Read More

Rubicon Stands with Charlottesville Victims, Against Hate and for a Growing Movement

By Jane Fischberg August 14, 2017

It is our collective responsibility to call out and dismantle injustice and inequity in our fractured system when we see it.  Rubicon Programs remains committed to acting on our responsibility to represent the people we serve and fight for their interests – and what we agree is basic human decency.

I would like to share with you my personal experience and reflections on this past weekend’s blatant show of armed Nazism, white supremacy and unfettered fascism in Charlottesville, and the death and violence that followed.  Frankly, I was horrified and angry.

Last night’s vigils sprang up organically throughout the country, with at least a few right here in the East Bay.  Personally, I attended a gathering in Latham Square in Oakland. So many thoughts ran through my mind. 

People from the ages of 15 to 90 spoke from the heart, and many families brought their young children.  I found high school age speakers to be especially eloquent, expressing both their resolve to be united against hate wherever they see it, and also their hope for the future.

On the other end of the age continuum, someone who attended a vigil in El Cerrito told me about a 93-year-old man who spoke. The man said that he had fought at Iwo Jima, and never thought he would still be struggling against fascism more than 70 years later. He didn’t want to die with the struggle still continuing. 

My friend made a sign, “400,000 US military died fighting fascism during World War II.  Never again.” 

White supremacy is a disease, as well as a system, and it remains a threat.

I then wondered if this immediate and widespread outpouring of anger, grief and dismay by white people was, in part, due to the fact that a white life was lost. Would the national response have been the same if Heather Heyer were black or brown?

Toward the end of the vigil, Oscar Grant’s uncle spoke, introducing himself as Uncle Bobby, and asked how many of us at the vigil had been there eight years before, when his unarmed nephew was shot dead by a BART police officer.

I was one of those who was not.  Only about a quarter of the crowd raised their hands.  

Nonetheless, he found comfort in this, and did not express bitterness. He took this as a sign of advancement. The number of people who are aware of the deep, gnarled roots of systemic racism in America has multiplied exponentially. People are talking about it and acting to end it.

Unfortunately, our nation still has a ways to go. Hundreds of white men are still marching with swastikas on their arms and torches in their hands. Our President remains silent. And more complicated issues like poverty and implicit bias remain ever-present.

We should hold onto Uncle Bobby’s words and embrace his message of hope.

The nation is awakening.  Let’s shine a light on injustice and fight for change one heart and mind at a time.

Read More

East Bay Times: Landmark settlement offers some relief from crushing traffic ticket fines

By Jonathan Bash August 14, 2017

By TAMMERLIN DRUMMOND | Bay Area News Group
August 14, 2017

Jesse Austin, a 39-year-old Antioch resident, owed more than $1,800 in unpaid tickets stemming from a traffic stop last September in Benicia. He couldn’t pay that high an amount on the $800 he earned every two weeks at a store that sold men’s grooming products. When he didn’t pay or show up in court, Solano County put a hold on his driver’s license. That in turn, he said, stopped him from getting a job as a delivery driver, better-paying work that he had done in the past.

“Not having a license has really hindered my earning ability,” said the father of six who works as a bicycle messenger in San Francisco. “You have to have one for a lot of jobs.”

Last week, Solano County Superior Court agreed to a first of its kind settlement in California that offers low-income people like Austin some relief from crushing traffic ticket debt and penalties that so often lead to a license suspension. The county now must notify drivers about alternatives to paying the full amount. Qualifying low-income residents are able to fill out a declaration of financial need and ask to pay in installments, seek a fine reduction or request community service. It’s also retroactive, which means drivers can petition the court for financial relief to get a license suspension lifted. The new policy applies to non-criminal violations.

“When you suspend a person’s license there is supposed to be a finding of willfulness,” said Sarah Williams, a staff attorney with Rubicon Programs, a Contra Costa County-based nonprofit that led a coalition of Bay Area legal aid organizations in filing a class action lawsuit last year.  “When someone doesn’t pay a ticket that doesn’t mean it’s willful if they can’t afford to pay it.”

Story continued at www.eastbaytimes.com.

Read More

Landmark Rubicon Lawsuit Settled, Paves Way for Fair Treatment of Low-Income Drivers

By Jonathan Bash August 8, 2017

Solano County adopts model policies that lessen the burden of traffic fines and fees           

                              

San Francisco, CA - A settlement was reached today in the first lawsuit in California to challenge the suspension of driver’s licenses as a means of collecting unpaid traffic fines. The lawsuit was originally filed on June 15, 2016 against Solano County Superior Court, challenging the court’s practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of people who could not afford the astronomical price of traffic tickets.

“Having to choose between food and a traffic fine is not a choice at all," said Jane Fischberg, President and CEO of Rubicon Programs, a plaintiff in the suit. “This settlement gives us hope that we are finally moving away from unjust systems that criminalize poverty. We applaud the Solano Court’s good faith effort to make the system more equitable – so that everyone in our communities has an opportunity to achieve economic mobility."

Prior to the lawsuit, the Court routinely failed to notify traffic defendants of their right to demonstrate they were low-income and unable to pay the fines – which the suit alleged was unlawful. The Court also lacked a mechanism for low-income drivers to seek a reduction in the fine or an alternative to payment based on their poverty.

Today, the parties filed a settlement that achieves the goals of the lawsuit. Under the terms of the settlement, the Court will notify every traffic defendant of their right to be heard regarding their “ability to pay.” The Court will update all notifications to traffic defendants, including its website, the oral advisements provided by traffic court judges, and the “notice of rights” handout given to all traffic defendants. The new notices explain the traffic defendants’ rights to ask the Court for a lower fine, a payment plan, or community service if they are indigent.

Further, the Court agreed to change its procedures for assessing a defendant’s ability to pay. For traffic defendants who are homeless, receive public benefits or are low income, the Court has agreed to consider alternative penalties that do not involve payment of a monetary fine – such as community service.

"We hope that Solano's reforms will be a model for other counties to follow," said Rebekah Evenson, Director of Litigation and Advocacy at Bay Area Legal Aid. "We laud the Solano County Superior Court and Presiding Judge Fracchia for working with us to reform their traffic system in a way that treats low-income drivers fairly and equitably."

“We appreciate that the governor and legislature recently put an end to the harmful practice of using license suspension to punish low-income people who can’t afford to pay costly tickets,” said Christine Sun, Legal Director at the ACLU of Northern California. “Now we’d like to see counties across California follow Solano County’s example and address the exorbitant traffic fines and fees structure that plunges people into a cycle of poverty.”

A 2017 study by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, "Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic Court System," showed that Californians pay some of the highest fines and fees in the country—which can devastate the lives of Californians with lower incomes.

People of color also bear a disproportionate amount of this burden. The study’s Bay Area data revealed that African-Americans are four to sixteen times more likely to be booked into county jail on a charge related to inability to pay a citation. Because of over-policing in communities of color and racial profiling, African-American and Hispanic individuals are more likely to receive traffic tickets than are white and Asian individuals and are far more likely to be cited solely for driving with a license that was suspended for failure to pay or appear in traffic court.

The lead plaintiff in the suit, Rubicon Programs v. Superior Court, is Rubicon Programs, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive employment, career, financial, legal and health & wellness services to thousands of low-income people across the Bay Area. Additional plaintiffs in the suit include the ACLU of Northern California, and Henry Washington, a low-income Hayward resident whose license was suspended because he could not pay a “fix-it” ticket. Plaintiffs were represented by:

Read the final settlement here.

Media Contacts:

 

Sarah Williams, Attorney, swilliams@rubiconprograms.org or (510) 412-1763

Jonathan Bash, Communications Manager, jonathanb@rubiconprograms.org or (510) 231-3993

 

Linda Kim, Bay Area Legal Aid, Lkim@baylegal.org or (510) 250-5218

Bethany Woolman, ACLU of Northern California, bwoolman@aclunc.org or (415) 621-2493

Read More