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Criminal Justice Advocacy from Within the L.A. Mayor's Office

Feb 15, 2016
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Kimberley Baker Guillemet helped form the Los Angeles Office of Reentry to ensure that when someone leaves prison, limited employment options do not lead to a cycle of crime. In this episode, she discusses her work helping the formerly incarcerated rejoin society and altering conditions that lead to initial jailings. Kimberley is a graduate of the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

Transcript

Host:

From LawHub, this is I Am The Law, a podcast where we talk with lawyers about their jobs to shed light on how they fit into the larger legal ecosystem. In this episode, Kyle McEntee interviews a criminal justice reform advocate who works at the intersection of law and policy.

Kyle McEntee:

We're joined today by Kimberley Baker Guillemet, a 2005 graduate of the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. She does public policy and outreach for the Mayor of Los Angeles. Kimberley, you've been in the public sector since 2005, and actually practiced law before jumping into the policy realm last year. What did you do before?

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

Prior to law school, I was a teacher. I actually taught in South Los Angeles. Initially, I worked for a disability rights law firm. At the time, it was called Protection & Advocacy, Inc. It's now called Disability Rights California. And I represented youth from underserved communities who had behavioral health challenges in efforts to divert them from the criminal justice system. From there, I went to the attorney general's office and practiced in their civil group, and then moved to the criminal appellate division from there.

Kyle McEntee:

So before we get into what you do now, I want to talk a little bit about the mayor's office. Is the mayor the only elected official in this office?

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

Yes, the mayor is the only elected official. However, he has five deputy mayors that oversee his different major policy areas. I am in the Mayor's Office of Public Safety under Deputy Mayor Jeff Gorell, and there are various policy shops in that particular office. So there's my office, there's the Gang Reduction & Youth Development Office, and Domestic Violence Policy Office, et cetera. But we all work to move the mayor's agenda.

Kyle McEntee:

So, you're in the Office of Reentry. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is and what the purpose is?

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

The Mayor's Office of Reentry focuses on removal of barriers faced by formerly-incarcerated individuals. However, it's looking at the entire trajectory, the entire pipeline, and what gets a person to the point of reentry. So obviously, that's looking at what gets them to the point of incarceration, what gets them to the point of engaging in criminal behavior. So, it's really looking at the whole person. And when you look at the whole person, you're looking at different pieces that impact that person. So for formerly-incarcerated individuals, we know that there are some top drivers that really cause them to engage in criminal behavior. We also know there are some areas that tend to be top obstacles for formerly-incarcerated people, and those tend to be employment, housing, substance abuse, other behavioral health issues, family reunification, and mentorship/pro-social relationships. So, we focus on policy programs and systems reform in those areas.

Kyle McEntee:

So, it's not just reentering or transitioning from jail to freedom. It's also for those who have been free for a while but still face residual consequences from their incarceration.

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

Absolutely. And one thing that is somewhat of a challenge, but it allows us to be creative, is that the city of Los Angeles, we have technically no jurisdiction over people when they are incarcerated. In Los Angeles, there are two bodies that have jurisdiction over incarcerated people. One is the county. The second is the state. With regard to working with people when they are actually incarcerated, that's technically not in the city's jurisdiction. Our position with regard to currently-incarcerated people is to push on policy, and work to partner with county and state to support people currently incarcerated.

But when people are actually released and returning to their communities, we have a lot of influence over what that is going to look like. We currently are focusing our energies and efforts on employment, and then working with our home-base organizations to move the needle on housing. Also on collateral consequences of conviction, like you noted, and with other issues with employment, Proposition 47 here in Los Angeles that requires legal support. And then other areas too, like restorative-justice issues, trauma-informed-care issues, et cetera.

Kyle McEntee:

So that's a lot you're working on, but I actually understand that you are an office-of-one, and that you opened the office. So, how did that come about? I mean, it seems clear that your experience with the California AG's office really set you up nicely from understanding the legal landscape of it. So, how did you transition from doing the legal side to trying to improve the city through all these restorative reforms?

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

I think, for me, every part of my career has been with an eye toward the bigger picture. When I made the decision to join the AG's office, I understood that in order to really effectively impact policy, I needed to have a good grasp of the legal landscape in the state. Also, I needed to understand the way things worked within a prosecutor's office in terms of discretion. And even from the consumer-protection component of my work when I was at the Attorney General's office, I was representing state licensing boards. But oftentimes individuals who were applying for licenses or who were licensees of the various professional boards were denied licenses, or disciplined, or actually had their licenses removed or revoked because of convictions, which many times were not related and had no nexus to the duties or qualifications of the job. For me, it has always been with an eye toward understanding better the landscape in which these reforms need to occur.

One thing that brought everything full-circle for me. When I was in the Attorney general's office, I remembered when I was a teacher. My students were some of the most resilient and smart kids you would ever meet, but they face some of the most challenging obstacles that I had seen for little people to have to deal with. Seeing kids who were physically abused, who were being neglected, whose families, mothers, were engaged in human trafficking, or the fathers were trafficking the mothers, substance abuse issues. But they came to school and wanted to be there. They wanted better for themselves. So I just remember always fighting, as a teacher, for more for my students. So once I realized that there were larger issues at play, I knew that I needed to go to law school to change that.

So then when I fast-forward to my career as a deputy attorney general and I'm looking at my caseload as a criminal prosecutor, I'm looking at the probation reports of the defendants. Almost like clockwork, the defendants faced some of the same obstacles, the same living situations, the same familial challenges that my students faced 15 years earlier. So for me, it really made it very clear in that moment in time that this issue was about looking at the whole person and creating a landscape where they would truly have opportunity to be their best selves. And criminal justice issues, and incarceration issues, and crime are not just about the moment in time the crime is committed, as we all know. It's about so much more than that, and it's about generational, cyclical issues.

Kyle McEntee:

So, none of these issues are new in Los Angeles. Why do you think it took so long for a mayor to decide it was time to create this kind of office within the department?

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

There are a couple issues at play. Mayor Garcetti is a person who is very committed to issues of social justice and economic opportunity. He comes from a background where his grandfather was an immigrant, having run-ins with the law. He has a very deep-seated understanding of what opportunity can do. Up until he established the Office of Reentry, prior to that, the only other Los Angeles mayor that really meaningfully addressed reentry was Mayor Tom Bradley, our first African-American mayor of Los Angeles. He had a reentry coordinator, but he never actually established an Office of Reentry.

If you couple Mayor Garcetti's background and understanding with some of the public goodwill and the landscape in which we live, where there is more understanding that the issue of criminality is not just about the moment in time the crime is committed, coupled with the information that is starting to be widely-understood that locking people up and forgetting about them does not work, it does not drive down crime, I think people are in a moment where they are more open to the reality that we are all in this together. And if we really want to see appreciable change in our communities, in our cities, in our state, and our nation, we have to think about things holistically. And we have to look at a person as our neighbor, as our brother, as our compatriot, and not as the enemy or the have-not that we're not interested in engaging.

Kyle McEntee:

So really, it's a transition from viewing criminality as the individual's moral failing to looking at it as our collective moral failing, and not setting people up to succeed, and looking at all the factors that go into success. That's where you come in, in looking at the structural barriers that are precluding people from becoming a part of society again after they're jailed, but then also ensuring that they don't go to jail in the first place.

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

The way you captured that was perfect, and I would just add that it's also about not punishing people into perpetuity. If we're all honest with ourselves, we've had missteps. And but for our parents or but for a connection, we could have been in a very bad position. Most of us aren't paying for the rest of our lives for our missteps. So, that's part of it too. Forgiving people, and allowing them to really move forward, and to really be allowed to, quote unquote, "pay their proverbial debt to society", and not be punished into perpetuity for their missteps.

Kyle McEntee:

So, let's talk about how you actually do this. It's part programming, it's part developing policy, and it's part outreach. Talk to me a little bit about the programming. In particular, I'm interested to hear about Proposition 47, which you mentioned earlier.

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

Proposition 47 is a state law that was recently passed which reclassifies certain low-level drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. However, there have been some challenges, and my office is working to work through those.

Kyle McEntee:

So, what are some of those challenges?

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

The public defender's last count, there was 1.3 million Los Angeles County residents eligible for Prop 47 reclassification.

Kyle McEntee:

To put that in context, that's out of 10 million people in the entire county.

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

Yes. The individuals who are eligible for reclassification need to, number one, be aware that they're eligible. And number two, actually file the paperwork to allow their felony to be reclassified.

Kyle McEntee:

So, they actually have to go through a filing process to have the felony reclassified as a misdemeanor.

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

Yes. Absolutely. Because it is not automatic, and because people aren't even aware that they're eligible, there is an outreach effort being undertaken in the county of Los Angeles to get the word out about it. The public defender is leading the charge, because there was a motion by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in December of 2015 charging the public defender with doing that. Also, as part of that motion, my office was charged, along with the county counterpart, to reach out to community stakeholders and formerly-incarcerated individuals to discuss how best to access the projected cost savings to be realized from Prop 47 implementation.

Kyle McEntee:

So, I think it's worth pointing out here that Los Angeles and Los Angeles County are not coextensive. What is the overlap like in terms of working with the county when you are accountable to a different boss, essentially?

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

You have the county of Los Angeles, and then the city of Los Angeles, which is within the county. And within the county there are other cities. Compton, for example, is another city in the county of Los Angeles. However, we are all independent, and make decisions independently of the county. The county oftentimes factors in things impacting the city of Los Angeles because we are its most populous city. When we look at the number of people that pass through Los Angeles County jails annually, which is roughly 163,000 people, we know that the majority of those people are returning to the city of Los Angeles. So, the city of Los Angeles has a very significant stake in the conversation around re-entry. That's why we work very closely with one another to push different policies, to support different laws and agreements that we are going to either separately or collectively try to move forward.

Kyle McEntee:

So because of shared geographic space, you really do need to always be in contact and collaborating instead of butting heads.

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

Absolutely.

Kyle McEntee:

Take one step back here and explain to our listeners why it is that reclassification matters. Sometimes punishment extends beyond what we think of as the punishment. And it strikes me as, that's what's going on here. But I want to hear a little bit more about how that works in practice.

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

There are significant collateral consequences to conviction. One of which is, employment opportunities are often taken off the table when someone is formerly-incarcerated, specifically when they have a felony conviction. There are certain private employers and certain public entities for a long, long time that would not consider individuals who had felonies. If a person had a felony on their record, it was an automatic no, an automatic denial. Now, we're currently in a time where many public entities have stopped with the policy of immediate denial with felonies. And the city of Los Angeles, I can proudly say, does not discriminate in that way. However, it still is very much an issue. There are still very many entities that, if there is a felony on the record, they will not even consider the applicant. And then that then dovetails into another policy issue that our office is working very hard to move forward.

So in November, 2015, President Obama signed an executive order directing all federal agencies to remove the box from all of their job applications. Also, in 2014, the state of California enacted AB 218, which made that same requirement of public agencies and entities within the state of California. We are currently, as a city, working on our own Ban the Box Ordinance, which we are calling a Fair Chance Ordinance. That ordinance will not only remain in line with AB 218, it will also require private employers and contractors with the city to remove the box from their applications inquiring as to criminal conviction history. And it will ask the employers to delay any inquiry into a person's criminal history until a conditional offer of hire has been extended.

Kyle McEntee:

So I want to ask about some of the downsides to your job, but I can imagine one is that this is probably not going to make too many private employers too happy, to have you tell them that they can't make hiring decisions as they want. What is that like to deal with?

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

It's so funny that you'd ask, because that is something that has really been at the forefront of a lot of my efforts in the past few months. It's interesting, because it goes to the issue of education. So you really hit the nail on the head when you got down to the crux of the issue for the employers, which is, they do not want anyone telling them who they can and cannot hire. For employers, that is at the core of their independence as a business owner.

Kyle McEntee:

And the key to policy is, without a doubt, understanding your opponents and what makes them tick.

Kimberley Baker Guillemet:

Exactly. So a big part of what I've been doing in the Ban the Box push has been working with the private sector to educate them on why they're missing out on significant benefits for their companies by not engaging the formerly-incarcerated workforce. There was actually a statistic recently released that said the United States lost over $57 billion in its GDP for one year by employers' unwillingness to hire formerly-incarcerated individuals. We know that we have the odds stacked against us in terms of private employers' willingness to do that on their own. However, when we talk to them about the amount of money that they're missing out on, and when we talk to them about the type of worker, with the type of often the work ethic, and the type of desire that a formerly-incarcerated employee will bring to the table, they start thinking about things that they just hadn't considered before.

So for a lot of them it's really just about education, and it's about shifting the paradigm. One thing that we are working on right now is, we're developing relationships with private employers in Los Angeles where we're talking to them. Because we want them to understand, this is not about the government coming in and telling you how to run your business. This is about us figuring out the best way to have the best economic outcomes for our city. The bottom line is, we have an aging workforce. And in about 10 years, unless we fill those gaps in our workforce, we're going to have a crisis on our hands. There's no way that we're going to be able to do that unless we tap into our formerly-incarcerated population, our, quote unquote, "opportunity youth population". Because we don't have the bodies to do that otherwise. So from a very basic economic perspective, it's absolutely necessary. Also, from a moral perspective, it's the right thing to do.

Host:

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