By Michael Mendoza, Policy Associate with #cut50
A few months ago, I had an idea for a bill in California that would give people on parole an incentive to contribute to their communities. On March 6th, #cut50’s national Day of Empathy, I watched that bill successfully pass out of the California Assembly Public Safety Committee with more than 3 dozen formerly incarcerated people and supporters standing with me and sharing their stories with state lawmakers.
This is why I wrote AB1940 and why Day of Empathy was one of the most important moments of my life:
When I found out I was going to be released on July 11th, 2014, I didn’t know what to expect stepping back into the real world. I could only imagine the challenges I would face of having to pay bills, adjust to technology, socialize with the community, enter into the workforce, and other responsibilities that I was unsure of.
Having to deal with the conditions of parole was the last thing on my mind. After all, I was going to be a free man – who cares. The cold reality is that the conditions of parole and other barriers to successful reintegration were a lot harder to deal with while having to adjust to ordinary everyday responsibilities.
The most difficult condition of my parole is the fact that I can’t travel outside of a 50-mile radius without permission. At first, I didn’t think this condition would be a problem. However, I paroled over 300 miles away from my family and strongest supporters. This traveling condition has been the biggest barrier to family reunification. After missing close to two decades my families most precious moments, even after my release I still find myself unable to unite with them in our most vulnerable moments.
This hit me the most when my grandmother passed away and I wasn’t allowed to go to her funeral. Not being able to spend holidays with them or attends weddings, birthdays, or be there for family emergencies. Family reunification plays a big role in the success of reentry. The strongest support an individual can receive is from family.
During the most difficult period of reentry, which is the first three years, I threw all of my energy into working and going to school. It was a hard decision to make to continue my education. I wasn’t sure I could do it, afford it, or where to start. I still had to worry about where I was going to live and could pay bills. There have been many times that I have wanted to give up on my education, sometimes even on parole.
Engaging in advocacy and civic engagement is what has saved me.
Going to school and volunteering my time with non-profit organizations made the biggest impact in my success on parole. These opportunities gave me a sense of community and purpose. Both have provided an important platform for my growth and success.
It was then that I realized that everyone on parole should be encouraged even incentivized to proactively engage in their communities in order to successfully reintegrate.
It wasn’t difficult to think of how people on parole could be incentivized, after all, while incarcerated people can earn time off their sentence by achieving milestone credits. So I figured that people on parole should also earn time off for going above and beyond their conditions of parole.
I wrote this idea in a memo that has now been translated into a California bill – AB 1940 Community Reintegration Credits. This bill allows people on parole to earn their discharge instead of just completing their time on parole. It’s a goal oriented approach that gives people a sense of accomplishment versus a time-based system that is punitive and unrewarding.
My discharge of parole is not guaranteed. But if this bill passes, my discharge becomes a goal I can take charge of and work harder towards. These incentives and rewards give substance to the reasons I should be discharged from parole sooner and provides a more meaningful experience of successfully reintegrating back into society as a citizen.
The Day of Empathy is a very important platform specifically for people who have been directly or indirectly impacted by the criminal justice system. It’s a day where we can humanize their experiences and the trauma that is associated by telling our stories and advocate for solutions. This day provides the biggest opportunity for civic engagement and collaborations between lawmakers and the community. This year’s Day of Empathy was even more special for me because AB 1940 was at the forefront of the discussion.
Michael Mendoza is a Policy Associate with #cut50