Two Views on Extending Prop 57 from San Quentin

Extending Prop 57

San Quentin News photo

CDCR’s proposed regulations for the implementation of Prop 57 are being reviewed in the California State Assembly and Senate Budget Committee hearings Thursday and this coming Monday. Advocates from CURBInitiate Justice and the Ella Baker Center are working with people in prison and their families to respond to the regulations, they forwarded these two articles. 

Ending the Cycle of Violence

Proposition 57 falls short of its potential to reduce the prison population and make society safer because its most impactful provisions exclude rehabilitated people who committed violent crimes. Keeping rehabilitated people in prison harms society by using $65,000 per person to incarcerated them, instead of putting those dollars into education. Further, many of these rehabilitated people who are excluded by Prop 57 would make powerfully effective mentors who have the wisdom and desire to affect change in their communities.

Samples of men who are now assets to their communities after paroling in 2013 are Gary “Malachi” Scott and Sam Vaughn. Both committed violent crimes but changed their lives while incarcerated. Now Scott does restorative justice work that has reached the ears of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. She appointed him to be on a committee that decided how best to spend $27 million on public safety. Sam Vaughn went to work for the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety. Since he took the job, the murder rate dropped from 45 percent to 11 in Richmond.

Like those men, I wasn’t born using violence. I grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, during the 1970’s. We left the doors unlocked and played outside without adult supervision. My mom sent me to take college computer courses while I was still in high school so I could pursue by dream of designing video games. Then I saw my little brother shot. I didn’t have the emotional tools to handle the trauma, and poor choices mired me in the cycles of violent that destroyed my neighborhood.

Being incarcerated didn’t stop my violence, but taking self-help groups like restorative justice did.

Being incarcerated didn’t stop my violence, but taking self-help groups like restorative justice did. They gave me the tools to heal my trauma and end my cycle of violence. I used these tools to mentor at-risk youth that visit San Quentin State Prison as part of the SQUIRES program. Now I’m in college finishing my education and using the skills learned to write about solutions to cycles of violence.

What I still dream of being able to do is help heal the youth in my community to stop the violence destroying our inner cities.

Some believe I and other people who’ve committed violent crimes are too dangerous to release back into society. These people don’t understand the parole process for people serving life sentences. They see us and they imagine “cunning criminals” will outsmart the board commissioners or the psychologists who pre-evaluate us.

The board consists of former law enforcement people, victim rights advocates, and prosecutors. They review criminal history, rehabilitation efforts, and psychological reports before interrogating the parole candidate to uncover whether he or she thinks like a criminal or a productive citizen. Statistics show that board commissioners do not release a lot of threats to society. The lifer who paroles in California has a less than 15% recidivism rate, and when it comes to a violent offense, the recidivism is less than 2%.

That is why legislators should apply Prop 57’s 50% time reduction credit to rehabilitated lifers who committed a violent crime and apply them retroactively. Expanding prop 57 will reduce the prison population in a way that improves society.

Rahsaan Thomas

Rahsaan Thomas is the cofounder of Prison Renaissance, a contributing writer for the Marshall project, and a staff writer for the San Quentin News. He’s serving a life sentence in San Quentin State Prison.

Proposition 57 was supposed to save taxpayers money and promote public safety, but it will deprive communities of leaders that could make them safer.

The reason is that the regulations California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitiation (CDCR) promulgates to execute Prop 57’s provisions are applied too narrowly. They focus on people who committed non-violent crimes. Common wisdom says that public safety requires the continued incarceration of any person who committed a violent crime, but in this case, common wisdom is wrong.

Common wisdom says that public safety requires the continued incarceration of any person who committed a violent crime, but in this case, common wisdom is wrong.

I am not a “violent offender.” I am, however, a third-striker serving 25 years to life for burglary of an unoccupied dwelling. For the past 21 years, I’ve changed my life. Through self-help groups, cognitive therapy, and rigorous introspection, I’ve come to understand the underlying causes of my drug addiction and criminal conduct. With this understanding came the tools to change my life.

As I changed my life, I watched other men changing their lives. These men had committed violent crimes, but I watched them take the same tools I’d used and transform themselves into productive citizens dedicated to making amends for the harms they’d caused. Some mentor kids, attempting to steer them clear of cycles of violence. Some cooperate with assistant district attorneys in an attempt to slow rates of incarceration, and other dedicate their time and life to healing and empowering survivors of crime.

I’ve seen these men take the tools that have transformed them into community servants and place them in the hands of other men. The latter changed their lives too, showing me how contagious change can be. There’s a saying in therapeutic groups: “hurt people hurt people.” However, once people’s issues are addressed through therapy and peer counseling, they are healed, and the saying changes to “healed people, heal people.”

I’ve seen the truth of this statement in the restorative justice circles I attend every week. Imagine the force for change these healed people could be in their communities. Imagine the at-risk kids they could save from gangs or drugs. Despite their violent histories, these reformed men could decrease the violence in their communities. It feels like a waste of tax dollars to house reformed people in prisons when they could be paying taxes and disrupting cycles of incarceration in their communities.

You can make this possible through Prop. 57, which authorizes the CDCR to create a new regulation to implement an earlier parole process and award credits to prisoners who demonstrate that they have changed and will be productive citizens. Expanding CDCR’s proposed regulations to encompass even people who committed a violent crime will put them in the communities that need them quicker, where they can be a positive impact on others who could benefit from reformed incarcerated peoples therapeutic skills.

I’m asking that legislators extend Prop 57’s 50% time credit to violent and serious offenders and apply the credits retroactively, and include non-violent third strikers in the parole eligibility process. I’m also asking that community members contact their representatives in support of the same.

Your help will be beneficial to all communities.

Forrest Lee Jones

Forrest Lee Jones is a Journalism Guild Writer. He is a third-striker serving a 25 years to life sentence at San Quentin.

About Emily Harris

Emily Harris is statewide coordinator of Californians United for a Responsible Budget.