Pointed talk, talking points
Town halls end with fragile new partnership between DA and NAACP
The main hall at Antioch Progressive Church on Amherst Street seems large enough to accommodate a blimp, but it would have been overly generous to estimate that a quarter of the cushy seats inside were filled for a Thursday evening presentation that was not overtly religious but certainly involved conscientious folks praying for better days to come.
March 27’s fifth and final It Takes a Community town hall meeting presided over jointly by District Attorney Jan Scully and NAACP “Madame President” Betty Williams was aimed at getting Sacramento’s law enforcement and minority communities to work together to keep young people out of the adult and juvenile justice systems.
The meetings are now over, but all involved referred to the conclusion as a beginning. Painful criticisms, pointed comments and sage advice culled over the quintet of sessions from cops, pastors, activists, politicians, prosecutors, bureaucrats, parents, grandparents and, sadly, only a smattering of kids have now been boiled down to action items so this “new partnership” can move forward.
The rare opportunity for a meeting of the minds was not lost on the moderator at Antioch, E. Dotson Wilson, chief clerk of the state Assembly. He asked audience members to think of times they’ve heard people in other cities mention similar partnerships between their respective district attorneys’ offices and NAACP chapters. You can’t, Wilson maintained, because such alliances are “nonexistent.”
Sacramento’s partnership is tenuous at best, however. After stepping to the podium before a large banner that states, “Jesus his majesty the king” and mentioning “God is good” to approving “amens,” Williams characterized this new relationship as “a fresh start to work with law enforcement. I’m hoping this is the beginning of something good.”
But she conceded she did not know what to expect going into the first town hall meeting, that she and others haven’t always agreed with everything they have heard from law enforcement and that it was not until the third meeting that Scully and peace officers said something the community has known all along: Not all kids are bad. Williams used as validation Scully’s own figures that show only 1 percent of the district attorney’s cases involving juveniles are sent to adult courts, generally because of the heinousness of the criminal charges.
“What I’ve learned from these meetings is all roads lead to the district attorney,” Williams said. “It’s important as a community that we need to keep the line of communication open.”
To her credit, Scully did not sugarcoat what she has heard at the town hall meetings to score political points, noting the disconnect that still exists between community members who believe too many African-American children are being tried as adults to maximize the number of years they will be behind bars and her own contention that her agency is fair, evenhanded and colorblind. Despite testimony from audience members to the contrary, Scully still claims her office only follows the letter of the law—including mandatory prosecution guidelines—when it comes to sending youths arrested for the most violent crimes to adult courts.
“This series of town hall meetings were sometimes painful, from my perspective,” said Scully, who singled out one previous comment from an audience member who took umbrage with the district attorney referring to “my policies.” The community member characterized that as fostering an “us against them” mentality. “That’s not how I see it,” Scully protested.
Nonetheless, Scully “recommitted” her office to helping the community keep youths out of lockup, not just for their sake, but for the safety of their neighborhoods and Sacramento as a whole. She offered “any member of the community who feels there is an injustice” involving a case before the district attorney to contact her office or the NAACP.
Later, Scully—who has been the district attorney since 1994 and with the office for 29 years—ticked off ways her agency already helps the community, including prosecutions that force landlords to clean up their properties and programs to educate teens about staying in school and gun violence.
But the mind-set of law enforcement toward young black kids remained a recurring theme. The NAACP’s Wilson echoed the sentiments of many attendees when she said police often overreact to incidents at local schools. She brought up her own school days, when disagreements between students were settled with schoolyard fights. But, in those days, she noted, police were not called out. Today, she said, police are not only contacted but the combatants are arrested and their first journeys through the criminal justice system often begin, ensuring those youths will be saddled with police records that could haunt and harm them the rest of their lives.
Darryl Jenkins, president of the Sacramento 100 Black Men chapter, suggested that street cops learn more about the ways of today’s kids, many of whom come from fatherless homes and have little or no respect for authority figures. Encounters with such kids often escalate out of control because neither side is hearing one another, Jenkins said.
To help bring the two sides together, the town hall assemblage was split into two groups. Those sitting on one side of the room were sent to huddle against a wall with an Antioch banner that read “'All people matter to God’: Luke 19:10.” That group discussed ways the district attorney and law enforcement can help “community partners” keep youths out of the criminal-justice system. The exercise was flipped for the congregants sent to the opposite side of the cavernous hall. They addressed ways the community can help the district attorney and law enforcement achieve the same ends.
Dozens of ideas offered by participants were jotted on large tablets. Each group then voted on their best three to present to the assemblage as a whole, and achieved something unexpected amid the touchy nerves exposed at previous town halls: near consensus.
Both groups called for strengthening and expanding neighborhood advisory boards, more meetings that would enlist local businesses and engage wayward youths in noncriminal, after-school pursuits.
Each group’s final call, while not exactly identical, still had similarities. One wanted the district attorney and law enforcement to support and create their own after-school programs so their personnel personally get to know the community’s youths. The other sought mentoring programs to teach children and parents better social skills.
But in the end, the most symbolic thing to come out of the town hall series did not involve words or action items. It was the sight of Scully and Williams ending the session with a warm embrace.