Xochitl Larios (right) sitting with friends at Lake Merritt, holding a "No on Prop. 20" sign. Credit: Ricky Rodas

On Tuesday afternoon, about two dozen people gathered at the amphitheater on the southern edge of Lake Merritt to rally against a state ballot initiative that would roll back some of California’s recent criminal justice reforms. While volunteers and passersby enjoyed the music being spun by a DJ from the collective Chulita Vinyl Club, organizers with the local nonprofit Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice handed out fliers and chanted, “No on Prop. 20.”

If approved by California voters on Nov. 3, Proposition 20 would allow prosecutors to charge some nonviolent offenses—such as theft and certain fraud crimes—as felonies instead of misdemeanors. It would make it harder for some people to be released from prison early, and allow the police to take DNA samples from people convicted of misdemeanors like shoplifting and drug possession.

Activists at the rally said the state law would harm many Oaklanders by extending prison sentences and drawing resources away from prison alternatives, like restorative justice and rehabilitative community programs.

“Stopping Prop. 20 now is the start to creating resistance against prisons, against people who are in opposition to our true rehabilitation here in the community and in California,” said Oakland resident Xochitl Larios, 21.

Larios was incarcerated in Alameda County’s Juvenile Justice Center as a teenager but she now works for CURYJ as a youth justice program associate, educating local youth who have been convicted or are currently serving time.

This year, CURYJ launched an initiative to mobilize voters, particularly in East Oakland, around Proposition 20.

“Personally, it has impacted me and my friends,” said Larios about California’s criminal justice system. ”We start as juveniles then trickle into the adult system, and there is a lack of services once you’re an adult.”

Proposition 20 supporters, including unions that represent Los Angeles police officers and sheriff’s deputies, and the Republican Party, have argued that the law would improve public safety.

If passed, Proposition 20 would undo some of the justice reforms that California voters approved in previous elections—specifically Proposition 47 (2014), Proposition 57 (2016), and Assembly Bill 109 (signed into law in 2011). Together, these three laws re-classified certain nonviolent crimes like shoplifting and fraud (not exceeding $950) as misdemeanors instead of potential felonies, which resulted in fewer people being sent to prison. The reforms also increased parole chances for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes and allowed judges—not prosecutors—to decide whether juveniles could be prosecuted as adults.

Law enforcement groups believe these changes have resulted in more crime. University researchers have found mixed results, but overall, violent crime rates are at historic lows.

John Vasquez, CURYJ’s policy coordinator, said the ballot initiative is no more than an attempt to funnel money back into the prison system.

“It will take us back to the heyday of mass incarceration,” said Vazquez, who is currently on parole. “I served 25 years and I was locked up during the peak of mass incarceration, and it was a traumatizing experience. Prop. 20 will send people to prison for stealing a bicycle or a pair of Air Jordans, by changing the threshold of felony theft to just $250. That’s bad policy.”

Larios said it’s important that East Bay youth like herself play a role in getting the word out about measures like Prop. 20 that could negatively impact Black and brown communities.

“People that speak on issues are never living it, and if you don’t talk to the people that are actually living it and surviving it, then you will never learn that perspective,” said Larios.

Larios added that she wants to set an example for her 14-year-old sister, Sophia, a CURYJ intern who also attended the rally at Lake Merritt and spoke to The Oaklandside.

“We’re going to be the next generation doing this stuff,” said the younger sibling, “hosting these events and helping our community.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.