Inspired by one member’s personal struggle, a group of CSUN social work graduate students introduced a legislative bill to help mend the issue of juvenile solitary confinement.
The students, who will graduate this May, aimed to expand on Senator Leland Yee’s 2012 bill, SB 1363, which did not pass, to lower the hours allowed for juvenile solitary confinement.
The path to legislation began with CSUN professor Jose Paez’s advanced policy and advocacy class. He gave each group a topic, but one member had a different plan.
Katie Cianci, 34, had a personal connection to the issue of juvenile solitary confinement and felt strongly about steering the project in that direction.
Cianci’s adopted brother got into drug use, was arrested and sent to juvenile hall, where he spent the majority of his time in solitary confinement.
“He spent three years in the center, and a year and half was spent in solitary confinement,” Cianci said.
Cianci’s brother was placed there for protection from two other inmates.
Though solitary confinement is the center’s solution it winds up punishing those who might not deserve it, Cianci said. “(Confinement) is not the only option.”
Part of the solution was inspired by a Missouri law stating that juvenile’s will not be subjected to solitary confinement but instead receive counseling and other ways of dealing with their particular situation, Cianci said.
After receiving numerous letters from her brother telling of hallucinations during confinement, Cianci decided to investigate the situation.
“Through research, we just discovered that (juveniles’) brains aren’t fully developed yet, and they’re still subject to what the United Nations considers torture,” Cianci said.
“From (this idea), they gathered an incredible amount of information and figured out who to put pressure on,” Paez said.
The students contacted Senator Yee in San Francisco and Senator Carol Liu in Glendale.
The project began early September with the start of the 2012-2013 academic year. They spent many weeks dealing with the research side of their topic before they decided to take it a step further.
“We had a two-pronged approach. Senator Yee had proposed a bill that didn’t pass, so we went back to his office and told them we wanted to help resurrect their bill,” Kevin Trout, 41, said.
The group kept pressuring the senator to reintroduce the bill and began an online petition so that each time someone supported the cause, an email would be sent to Senator Yee’s office, Trout said.
The students further developed their idea when talking to Senator Liu’s legislative aid, Andrea Lane.
Lane had high praise for the CSUN students and said they were the most well-prepared group she had worked with, said group member Sandra Sharma, 33.
“Groups and organizations come to (Lane), and to have her say
that we handle ourselves in a professional way (and) to get that complement from her (was great).” Sharma said. “I think, for myself, I conquered something unattainable. I never thought I could go into a legislative office and give a presentation.”
After a successful meeting with Senator Liu, the group remained persistent, continued their research and kept both senators’ offices up to date with their findings.
“We hadn’t heard from Yee for several weeks,” Cianci said.
On Jan. 3, 2013, the students received an email from Senator Yee’s office stating that he had decided to introduce the bill, SB 61, the following week, said Sharma.
The bill must now be voted upon by numerous committees in both the Senate and House of Representatives, but they conquered the first obstacle.
Cianci is continuing her work on the bill and aiding Senator Yee.
They’re continuing to request support from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), and the group offered to help Yee’s office whenever they needed more research, Cianci said.
Paez has taught the advanced policy course five times and said he has never seen this kind of commitment to a project before.
“They had good rapport, and they wanted to try something different. I’m glad they went and pursued what they really cared about,” Paez said. “I (also) think they informed a lot of other people about this issue.”
Aside from dealing with two senators, the group contacted NASW and other groups who could send support and push the bill through committee, Paez said.
“If anyone in the community wants to submit a bill, they can,” Paez said. “Research is really important and helps the senators utilize information in their argument, since they don’t (always) have time to do that.”
Sharma offered insight for fellow students and citizens who want to make a difference in the law.
“If there’s a social injustice, it is within their reach to contact our legislation and senators to voice their opinions, whether it’s an individual, five people or a bigger group,” Sharma said.