Re-Post: “More than One Man, More than One Sentence”

This essay was originally posted on the City Brights Blog, which is an online publication hosted by the SFGate, home to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In its 12th year, the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is a powerhouse in the struggle for justice, opportunity and peace. Under the direction of Jakada Imani, the center has helped close some of California’s most abusive youth prisons, successfully sponsored landmark juvenile justice reform, and created new clean and green opportunities through the groundbreaking work of the Green-Collar Jobs Campaign. In 2008 Jakada and the Ella Baker Center played a lead role in defeating California’s Proposition 6, a dangerous and ineffective “tough on crime” ballot measure that would have forced the state to spend more than a billion dollars annually on failed programs.

The Bay Area native is working to help bring an end to the cycle of violence that plagues much of urban America and to promote reinvestment in our cities using smart solutions and uplifting alternatives to violence and incarceration. A a long-time community organizer and activist, Jakada led a successful campaign to stop the construction in Alameda County of one of the nation’s largest (per capita) juvenile halls in Alameda County — an enormous “Super Jail for Kids.”

For many years before becoming the Executive Director at the Ella Baker Center, I worked with our Books Not Bars campaign which transforms our juvenile justice system to invest in young people, their families, and our communities. Since its inception, the campaign has helped close four of the notoriously abusive California Youth prisons and organized thousands of family members of incarcerated youth and our allies to demand change in the system.

After all those years of working with incarcerated youth and their family members, one thing is extremely clear. A prison does very little to help people behinds bars. In fact, it often makes things worse. Forced to experience outrageous levels of violence, abuse, and neglect, young people often leave California’s youth prisons damaged and unprepared – over 70% are rearrested within two years.

Not only is a prison sentence ineffective at providing those locked up any form of rehabilitation or opportunity for healing, a sentence does little to end the suffering of the victims of a crime. One of the mothers from the Families for Books Not Bars network remains seared into my memory. This woman, was the mother of three kid- her oldest son and her daughter were both serving time in California’s youth prisons. Her younger son was killed in a case of mistaken identity. The understandable devastation she felt at her son’s murder was not so different then the extreme devastation she felt from having two of her children locked up for their own mistakes.

Violence inflicts trauma. Healing from that trauma is a long path. When tragedy strikes, we yearn for justice. However, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again- sentencing one man is not justice.

On Friday, November 5th, a sentence is expected in the trial of Johannes Mehserle for the murder of Oscar Grant. And Mehserle is guilty of murder, even if the jury decided it was merely involuntary manslaughter, and should be held accountable for his actions. But I don’t want any of us to kid ourselves that a longer sentence for Mehserle will equal justice for Oscar Grant..

Read the rest of this post at


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