Project Emancipation a way out of injunction

Project Emancipation a way out of injunction

By David Howard
April 26, 2005

As the Oxnard gang injunction trial came to a conclusion, it became clear to many courtroom observers that a permanent injunction would be issued against alleged members of Colonia Chiques.

Although Public Defender Neil Quinn and civil rights attorney Gabriella Navarro-Busch presented a compelling case to challenge the wisdom, constitutionality and effectiveness of the Oxnard injunction, their position did not prevail, at least not at the Superior Court level.

Nevertheless, many community activists remain convinced that the injunction was a bad idea from its inception — the brainchild of an overzealous police chief who has since resigned. We have argued that instead of concocting new prosecutorial devices to ensure that our nation maintains the dubious distinction of leading the world in per capita incarceration, we should devote our energies to providing the full range of educational, health, employment and rehabilitative services that are proved to dramatically reduce crime rates.

Some Ventura County elected representatives and police officials are beginning to pay attention. Port Hueneme’s city government has not been receptive to the district attorney’s pitch for an injunction in that city. Hueneme Police Chief Fernando Estrella told The Star on April 23: “You cannot just arrest your way out of a gang problem. We are also looking at other alternatives that will help us build more schools and not larger prisons.”

Is there sufficient common ground between injunction proponents and opponents to make progress in creating the kind of alternatives Chief Estrella envisions?

After observing several days of the trial, one commonality became clear to me: Everyone who set foot in Judge Frederick Byssche’s courtroom was passionately committed to reducing the murder and violent crime rate in Oxnard. That includes police officers, district attorney, civil rights activists, relatives of victims and alleged gang members, attorneys for the enjoined individuals and expert witnesses for both sides.

Our disagreement is not over the goal, but the means of achieving it. The district attorney has emphasized punitive measures that circumscribe civil rights; community groups have stressed social services and rehabilitation.

Despite diverse approaches and philosophies, and despite the inherent adversarial nature of a trial, one area in which we may get consensus between community groups and law enforcement is Project Emancipation.

In response to the court’s request, activists from several peace and justice organizations have drafted a proposal that provides a rehabilitative exit from the injunction.

The need for such a strategy is apparent from District Attorney Karen Wold’s statement in The Star on March 25, 2004: “People who are not even born yet can be served with this order 20 years from now.”

If you’re not alarmed, you ought to be. Consider this: Nothing prevents the Oxnard police under current leadership, or under whatever leadership it may have 10 or 50 years from now, from jailing citizens for driving home from the movies after 10 p.m. or for crossing the street to visit a neighbor. There is no requirement that such a citizen have a criminal record.

Indeed, Californians have already been enjoined by similarly crafted injunctions without ever having been arrested or even having been a suspect in a crime. All the police have to do is document that someone has accused you of being a gang member. A witch hunt? Potentially.

Project Emancipation proposes a rehabilitative alternative to incarceration and eternal surveillance. Enjoined individuals would be offered the opportunity to participate in a program like the KEYS Leadership Academy. The award-winning KEYS program gets at-risk young men and women enrolled in school, gainfully employed and involved in productive community-improvement projects.

We propose that the injunction be temporarily lifted while alleged gang members are pursuing an approved program like KEYS and permanently lifted upon successful graduation. Respected community organizations like Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, along with representatives from the police and probation departments, would provide oversight for Project Emancipation.

Gang injunctions provide no incentive for enjoined individuals to get a job, go to school or contribute to the community. Project Emancipation does. Furthermore, a successful Project Emancipation launch in Oxnard can provide a rehabilitative model for past and future injunctions throughout the state and country.

Can anyone really argue that jail is a more desirable outcome than jobs, counseling and college credit?

— David Howard, of Ojai, is co-chairman of Citizens for Peaceful Resolutions. He can be reached by e-mail at DavidHoward@aol.com.

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