Photo: Office of the Governor of California

When Governor Gavin Newsom was asked, at a press conference in March, if he would be willing to free some people from California prisons who are high risk for catching the coronavirus, he said: “I have no interest — and I want to make this clear — in releasing violent criminals from our system. “

As an incarcerated person currently locked up in prison for violent crimes, I have to say, I agree with Governor Newsom. A “violent criminal” is someone who should not only be kept in prison, he is someone who shouldn’t even be let out of his cell on a day-to-day basis. When I imagine a violent criminal, I think of a lion waiting to escape from a cage. I imagine a violent criminal as someone who is actively engaged in planning and committing acts of violence. I imagine violent crime as his full-time occupation. So, naturally, those who are violent criminals shouldn’t be released from prison.

But what Governor Newsom said cannot be applied to many men and women who have spent decades behind bars working extremely hard to rehabilitate themselves; those who have committed past acts of violence, but who are not necessarily violent criminals. Someone who hasn’t committed a crime or an act of violence In 25, 30, and 40 years of incarceration, who has worked hard to stay away from trouble, who has denounced both drugs and gangs, who learned how to read and write, and who got their GED and a college degree, doesn’t deserve to be called a violent criminal.

Someone who has admitted their past crimes and addictions and who has committed themselves to treatment, abstinence, and making a living amends to their victims and society is not exhibiting violent criminal behavior.

Someone who was socialized into violence and abuse as a child, who couldn’t escape their environment , but was rehabilitated in prison, where he learned how to communicate non-violently, is not necessarily a violent criminal. The words “violent criminal” underscores the current mindset and behavior of many who committed past violence but who have maintained exemplary prison records throughout the years.

Many incarcerated people have been in prison a lot longer than they were in society. They have spent more time on this planet trying to better themselves than they have spent being destructive. The California Department of Corrections And Rehabilitation (CDCR) is now recognizing those who have had years of positive programming behavior. People who committed past crimes like murder, robbery, and mayhem are being given the opportunity to have their violent classification status removed and to be placed in minimum security facilities, where they have access to better programs (California Code of Regulations,Title 15 Section 3375.2 (b)(28)(E).)

CDCR has also committed itself to providing incarcerated people with access to evidence-based rehabilitation programs. It has upgraded its Substance Abuse Treatment programs and spread them amongst almost all its institutions. CDCR has brought face-to-face college programs to its prisons and has expanded access to on-line colleges. It has even opened its doors to a bachelor’s degree program at some of its prisons. CDCR has also doubled its Career Technical Training program availability.

CDCR has also committed to providing access to restorative justice programs. It has contracted with trained certified professionals to teach courses in Victims Awareness, Domestic Violence Prevention, family relationships, anger management, and criminal thinking. It also allows incarcerated students to work with these professionals so they can become trained certified facilitators. This would not be possible if everyone of us in prison were violent criminals.

Studies show that incarcerated people who participate in vocational training reduce their rate of recidivism by 30%. According to the Rand Corporation and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people who participate in educational programs reduce their rate of recidivism by 43%. When it comes to college the higher the degree the lower the rate of recidivism. Convicted criminals who obtain their master’s degree have almost a 0% rate of recidivism.

Studies also show that people age out of crime. According to a 2018 report by the Justice Policy Institute, a person 60 years old has a recidivism rate of less than 3%. According to CDCR only 5% of lifers released on parole are convicted of a new crime within three years of their release.

When progressive governors, like Gavin Newsom, use the term “violent criminal “to describe people who have been in prison for decades trying to better themselves, they speak as if they don’t believe in progress. They speak as if they do not believe the certificates of achievement, the graduations, the trade skill certifications, or the positive programming record documented in a person’s file. They speak as if they do not believe in the rehabilitative services provided in Institutions like CDCR or the statistics that show reductions in recidivism.

Those who believe in progress should not allow people to be kept frozen in time. They must not allow people to be forever defined by their past. Instead of arbitrarily refusing to release people at high risk of death from coronavirus, progressive Governors, like Newsom, should put more emphasis on what people have done since they’ve been incarcerated. He could consider implementing a vetting system.

A vetting system would promote justice and fairness. Newsom could consider the age of a person at the time they were arrested, their current age, a person’s past history, whether the current offense is the only act of violence, the number of years a person has been in prison, their medical records, their in- custody behavior, accomplishments, and parole plans.

But people who have committed past acts of violence are not necessarily violent and so having a past history of violence should not be the only determining factor for denying a person, not sentenced to death, an opportunity for release, during this coronavirus pandemic.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Steve Brooks

Steve Brooks is a contributing writer for the Prison Journalism Project and San Quentin News, a newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California where he is incarcerated. He has been published in the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit, All of Us or None and Voice of Witness. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and won a 2020 Journalism Excellence Award by SPJ's Northern California chapter for two of his columns in PJP. Steve has completed two college degrees in liberal arts and social and behavioral sciences and plans to obtain a bachelor’s degree in sociology.