Getting a Finger on the Pulse with Lizzie Buchen

Lizzie BuchenLizzie Buchen has recently joined CURBCalifornians United for a Responsible Budgetas its Statewide Advocacy and Communications Co-Coordinator, working out of Oakland. Earlier, she was a member of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) policy team. She holds an M.S. in neuroscience from the University of California San Francisco and has worked in journalism and prisoner rehabilitation. She also served as a volunteer adviser to the San Quentin News, a monthly newspaper produced by prisoners at San Quentin State Prison.

In working with Diana Zuñiga and our colleagues at CURB, Lizzie has already made her influence felt in the fight to combat jail construction projects, here in Los Angeles and across the state, and instead to promote community-based programs that could much more effectively serve people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

As busy as she is with her new calling, Lizzie took a few moments to answers questions from Justice Not Jails.

Justice Not Jails: You’re coming over to CURB after spending time working with the Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice. What kind of work did you do with CJCJ?

I started at CJCJ as an intern before I became their policy analyst, in which capacity I helped lead the organization’s research, policy advocacy, and communications work. I investigated crime rates, incarceration rates, and racial disparities, and used those analyses to support policy reforms that would reduce incarceration. I made those connections through legislative advocacy, working to pass (and sometimes oppose) bills in partnership with other advocacy organizations, and through media, using opinion pieces and press outreach to counter the myths and anecdotes that have long fueled cruel, degrading, and dangerous crime policies.

JNJ: What is it—or was itlike working with San Quentin inmates on their monthly prison newspaper?

Working with the people in San Quentin changed my life, personally and professionally. I had a relatively limited worldview before I walked into that prison. Inside, I witnessed the brutally and dehumanization of our prison system, and developed close relationships with people who had experienced more severe injustices that I could have ever imaginednot just at the hands of the criminal justice system, but by our long history of ruthless social policies that have devastated communities like theirs. In learning about their histories, and guided by their teachings as well as those of others in the anti-prison movement, I began understanding how these policies systematically oppress people of color and people who are poor.

I no longer volunteer inside the walls, but I remain close friends with many people inside, as well as those who have now been released. I consider us partners in this movement, and I regularly seek their perspectives and ideas to help guide me in all of the work I do.

JNJ: Recently, there seems to be a growing recognition that diverting people with mental health or substance abuse problems to community health resources rather than packing them off to jail is a much more effective and humane approach. What is CURB doing to advance this conversation and where do you think the next victories might come?

This is an extremely important issue right now. Thirty-two counties are scrambling to get their hands on $500 million of jail construction financing from the state, and many of them are doing so by proposing jail expansions on a pretense of mental health treatment. But promoting a jail as a way to “help” people with mental illness is misguided at best. People with mental illness cannot improve when they are forcibly removed from their loved ones and support networks, and locked in a chaotic and violent environment that is designed to punisheven when that environment also has well-intentioned mental health professionals on staff. Unfortunately, while counties seem all too eager to pour money into jail construction projects, they seem to struggle to find the money to fund far more effective programs in the community, even though the latter come at a fraction of the cost.

To combat these jail construction projects, CURB is working to engage local organizers and educate county boards of supervisors on the dangerously false promise of mental health jails.

To combat these jail construction projects, CURB is working to engage local organizers and educate county boards of supervisors on the dangerously false promise of mental health jails, and the successful community-based programs that should be funded to truly improve outcomes for people with mental illness. We’re also working to advance the conversation in the press, and are creating resources and preparing a webinar to share our knowledge and perspective with advocates and organizers across the nation.

Another reason that this is such an urgent issue is that the savings from Proposition 47 are slated for mental health treatment, substance use treatment, and diversion programs. All public agencies are eligible for this funding stream, and unfortunately, that includes sheriff’s departments. We need to put intense pressure on the BSCC, which will be distributing those savings, to fund community-based treatment, housing, job training, and reentry supportnot programs that require being locked inside a jail.

JNJ: The forces opposed to Prop 47, which reduces for a set of nonserious, nonviolent property and drug crimes from felony to misdemeanor status, are crying that increased crime rates have resulted. Do they have a point?

Absolutely not. We heard the same alarmist cries after realignment: Because more people with convictions would be in their communities instead of being incarcerated, we would see more crime. That didn’t pan out at all. After both realignment and Prop 47, law enforcement and punitive-minded politicians constantly spotlighted spectacular anecdotessome of which really push the line of plausibilityto make the case for locking more people up and for longer periods of time. This is an irresponsible distortion of reality. When you look at the statistics, crime rates are lower than they have been in half a century.

And the reality is, crime rates rise and fall, and we have a very poor understanding of what drives those trends. A long list of interacting forces are likely to be involved, including economic factors like unemployment rates and inflation, and social and environmental factors like the availability of community-based mental health and substance use services. The incarceration rate, however, is the cumulative outcome of many, many different criminal justice policies, so no one has been able to connect any one criminal justice policy to a rise or fall in crime. To attempt to do so less than one year after that policy’s implementation is totally ludicrous.


Lizzie with the San Quentin News team.

JNJ: In working out of Oakland, what particular projects will you work on for CURB?

Much of my work supports the entire statewide coalitionengaging our member organizations in state-level advocacy in Sacramento, and coordinating media and communications efforts to shape the public conversation on criminal justice issues. CURB also supports local campaigns around county budgets and jail expansion, and in this capacity I will be more engaged with campaigns in northern California, particularly in the Bay Area. Some of the key local mobilizations I’m involved with include the fights against new jails in Alameda County and in San Francisco.

JNJ: There’s now political conversation about moving away from for-profit prisons and detention centers. How is CURB approaching this issue and what will your role be in that battle?

This is a complex issue, and as private prisons threaten to continue expanding in California, it’s an increasingly urgent one for us to take on. Our coalition includes a broad diversity of organizations, and we don’t agree on everything—and this is one such issue. Right now, we are deep in the process of analyzing all views and experiences before collectively deciding how the coalition moves forward.

Here’s the bottom line: CURB wants to shrink the prison system, whether those prisons and jails are run by corporations, governments, or non-profits. The more complicated question is one of strategydoes the fight targeting private facilities help or hinder our fight against incarceration? It’s not an easy answer.

Often, messaging around opposing private prisons and jails focuses on the profit motive, which results in these corporations providing the bare minimum in care and programming to cut costs, and lobbying for tough-on-crime policies to increase revenue. The implication is that private prisons are worse than government-run prisons, which supposedly do not have such a perverse incentive. This is a false dichotomy. It was the prisons run by the California government that were found to be exacting “cruel and unusual punishment” by the Supreme Court, and that are torturing people with indefinite solitary confinement. The CCPOA — California prison guards’ unionis one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state, and were instrumental in passing the Three Strikes Law and other draconian sentencing measures.

We need to make sure the fight against private facilities doesn’t undermine our efforts to tackle the fundamental problem of incarceration itself. Right now, CURB is developing an analysis of this issue to figure out the best way for us to influence the political conversation, and plan to use this analysis to engage and educate our member organizations and allies.

JNJ: What would you like to tell our audience about CURB’s work and plans?

Right now, there’s a lot of discussion around “mass incarceration” and “sentencing reform,” and while it’s good that the issue is receiving so much attention, there are also a lot of concerns with where that conversation is going. This is a crucial time for CURB’s voicethe powerful, collective voice of grassroots organizations from around the stateto rise above the din.

Many of the ideas that are coming up nationally are merely tinkering around the edgesreforms like drug decriminalization and reducing sentences for people convicted of low-level offenses. These don’t affect the majority of incarcerated people, and don’t scratch the surface of the criminal justice system’s institutionalized violence, racism, and oppression. And some of the ideas coming out right now are flat-out terrible, like building boutique prisons and jails that are supposedly kinder and more humane than traditional facilities, but end up justifying the perpetuation and expansion of the system as a whole.

CURB has always pushed for more sweeping and more aggressive reforms. Our prisons and jails are packed with people who have been punished and locked away for far too long and should be able to return to their families and communitiesand that absolutely includes people with “serious” and “violent” convictions, which many mainstream reformers don’t want to go anywhere near. We want to close prisons and jails, not release the most sympathetic folks while tightening the chains on the rest. We want to strengthen and support communities, not build nicer cages.

In order to achieve these goals, we need to shift the political center of gravity. We don’t want to meet the politicians where they’re atwe want to bring them to where we’re at, because we know our vision is the one we should all be striving for. That’s why I came to CURB: This bold, courageous vision that the coalition pursues relentlessly. Together, our 70-plus member organizations aim to show people that what they thought was impossible is possible.

dick-price-hatJNJ: Thank so much for your time, Lizzie. We look forward to working with you.

Dick Price
Editor, Justice Not Jails

About Dick Price

Dick Price is Editor of the LA Progressive. With his wife Sharon, he publishes several other print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. He has worked in publishing as a writer, editor, and publisher for a quarter century. In earlier releases, he was a cab driver, bartender, construction worker, soldier, and farmhand, and for many years helped operate a nonprofit halfway house for homeless alcoholics and addicts. To contact him, please use the form on the Contact Us page.