The Leadership Tomorrow Justice Day class took place in downtown Santa Ana at the Public Defender’s office. Students’ perceptions of social affairs were challenged from the start as the day began with an eye-opening personal account of human sex trafficking. Miss Oree Freeman, now 21 years old, spoke about her life as a victim of human sex trafficking beginning at the age of 11. She was victimized here in Orange County for multiple years until her serendipitous meeting with Jim Carson from the Orangewood Foundation. Oree has since graduated from high school, enrolled in college and become a fierce advocate for victims of sex trafficking. She has met with police officers, district attorneys, judges, doctors, nurses, first responders and educators in high schools and colleges. She also works directly with children who have been and are being sex trafficked, and is a member of the California State Advisory Committee for Commercially Sexually Exploited Children.
The class then had the privilege of listening to Orange County District Attorney, Tony Rackauckas, and Public Defender, Sharon Petrosino. On a panel, they discussed current issues regarding our local and statewide justice systems. Exploring different perspectives in a diplomatic and constructive fashion was a unique and enlightening experience for our students as both professionals are passionate about their positions and the people they represent.
Following the speakers panel, our class participated in a “Q&A” session with four of the most influential members of public safety – Police Chief Jon Lewis (Newport Beach), Police Chief Robert Sharpnack (Costa Mesa), Police Chief Charles Celano (Tustin) and Deputy Chief of Police Julia Engen (Irvine). The panel was asked a set of questions ranging from current policing issues to recruitment. The Chiefs examined the realities of recruiting top-notch individuals to become sworn career police officers in today’s society. Propositions such as 47 and 57, along with AB 109, have made policing more and more dangerous and difficult. Additionally, social issues such as human sex trafficking and homelessness continue to provide challenges for officers. Each of the Chiefs spoke positively about their officers and communities expressing optimism for our collective future.
After a quick lunch in the Public Defenders library, the class walked to the Orange County Men’s Central Jail. All Leadership Tomorrow students were pre-screened with background checks and subject to the same search protocol of an inmate. Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies then gave a behind-the-scenes tour of the jail system from initial booking center to the various living quarters. Inmates are separated from each other based on several factors – level of crime committed, level of threat to oneself or others, physical disabilities, mental disabilities, race and even gang affiliation. The tour demonstrated some of the harsh realities of the criminal element that exists in our communities. Due in part to our strong police forces, legislation and engaged citizens, our overall crime rates remain low here in Orange County, however, issues remain in our communities and we all need to remain vigilant.
The day ended with a presentation from Nancy Clark. Ms. Clark is a criminal justice consultant who advocates alternate treatment programs for incarcerated people. She presented data about the prison population, and how the United States leads the world in the number of incarcerated citizens. She brought two guest speakers with her to share their stories. One was a 26-year-old man who found solace for his anger through drug abuse. His drug habit landed him in jail on multiple occasions. With Ms. Clark’s help, he was able to overcome his drug habit and now has assimilated back into society. The second speaker was convicted of murder in 1995 and grew up in the prison system habitually witnessing gang fights, stabbings and murders. Through Ms. Clark’s program, he left his criminal life behind and was able to move on. He ended his story with a particularly poignant anecdote, sharing that when he was released from prison, he stopped to hug and smell a tree, because there are no trees in prison and he never thought he would have the opportunity again to hug a tree.
Suffice to say, the day was filled with emotional and at times chilling stories about an element of our community that most of us do not want to think about. The class walked away from the day mindful that our public defenders are on the streets every day working to keep us safe.