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Prison reform expert: Real change comes from 'the level above changing laws'

Adriana Belmonte
Associate Editor

The making of “Just Mercy,” a new film based on a true story of a black man who was imprisoned and sent to death row for a crime he did not commit, taught film producer and prison reform advocate Scott Budnick about how to bring about real change related to U.S. prison reform.

“What I learned through Just Mercy is the level above changing laws is changing hearts,” Budnick told a panel after the film was screened at Team Up for Change, an initiative spearheaded by the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings organizations. “You're not going to pass more laws or get the people of Wisconsin to vote differently if they still see the people in prison as not human.”

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in "Just Mercy." (Photo: Schreenshot: Just Mercy)

Aside from helping produce movies including “Just Mercy” and “The Hangover,” Budnick is the founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC). The non-profit defines its mission as empowering “formerly and currently incarcerated people to thrive by providing a support network, comprehensive services, and opportunities to advocate for policy change.”

“Watching the news is scary... It’s horrible stories,” he said. “So, when we can start to humanize and tell those success stories, and make movies like this... that's what we need to do. It's the changing people's hearts part that I learned through Just Mercy.”

‘I know some racist, crazy people’

According to Budnick, the best way to change people’s hearts is to educate them without focusing on any ingrained racial bias.

“I’m from Atlanta — I know some racist, crazy people,” he said. “But I also know some ignorant people that just needed to be [woken up] a little bit. And you will have a lot of White allies on your side, because the White people I know don’t want injustice. They don’t want a system that favors the rich and not those that are poor. They don’t want a system that’s layered in racial bias.”

There are nearly 2.3 million people incarcerated across state, federal, juvenile, local, and Indian Country facilities across the U.S. And the demographics are skewed: Blacks are “incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that’s 5.1 times the imprisonment of Whites,” according to the Sentencing Project. In 11 states, at least 1 in 20 adult Black males is in prison.

In New Jersey, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Vermont, the rate of black imprisonment is more than 10 times that for whites. (Map: The Sentencing Project)

The way in one communicates about the issue is crucial, Budnick stressed.

“If you start a conversation with someone making them feel like you’re saying they’re racist, they don’t listen to the rest of your conversation,” he said. “You tuned them out for the rest of it. If you come with kinship and just realize they’re ignorant and they can be evolved, some of them you will win.”

Budnick used the method of finding common ground to connect with a conservative state senator in California when ARC advocated for bills including bail reform, preventing overcrowding in jails, and lessening sentences for juveniles.

Scott Budnick, talks to a juvenile offender in a corridor on the compound of the only juvenile hall of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania that he visited together with 30 US penal system experts. (Photo by Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images)

“We have a woman in our legislature, probably the most conservative woman in the whole legislature, named Shannon Grove,” Budnick said. “She represents Bakersfield, a very conservative part of the Central Valley of California — very heavily Republican.”

Grove repeatedly spoke against bills that Budnick lobbied for, not wanting felons granted early releases.

One bill that the ARC advocated for was California Senate Bill 260, which was passed in 2013 and allowed for juveniles who received long sentences and have served at least 15 years of their sentence to “submit a petition for recall and resentencing, and authorizes the court, in its discretion, to recall the sentence and to resentence the defendant.”

At one point, some ARC’s more religious members met with Grove “and there was a little Bible quote-off,” Budnick recalled. “It happened in that office that day, and the next thing is they invited Shannon down a little prison. And Shannon went with them … and sat with a man who committed a crime at 19 years old, had a life without parole sentence, and had just given up on life. And it broke her heart.”

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove urges lawmakers to reject a series of gun control measures at the Capitol on Thursday, June 30, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. (Phhoto: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

After that experience, Grove “came back to us and said, ‘I want to be with you — keep educating the next bill,’” Budnick said. “She voted in favor and now she sponsors bills with us and in fact, she’s sponsoring our Just Mercy screening at the Capitol in Sacramento.”

He stressed that “I don’t think Shannon is any different than” other politicians who present themselves as tough on crime and resist reform.

“All I can tell you is what we did to convert people in California and what seemed to work,” Budnick said. “We [were] led by those who were formerly incarcerated. So, there was not a day in the California State Capitol where we didn’t have 10 folks who were either 19 and spent three years in juvenile hall, or were 40 and spent 25 years in prison.”

The financial incentive for reform

Aside from the human element, there are financial arguments for prison reform.

The average annual cost of incarceration for federal inmates was $36,299.25 in 2017, which comes out to $99.45 per day, a 4.6% increase from 2016.

Oklahoma and Louisiana have some of the highest incarceration rates. (Map: The Sentencing Project)

There have been 23 states that have reduced the size of their prison populations since 2010, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, and “13 of these states have saved considerably in taxpayer money — $1.6 billion — at the same time.”

And when it comes to those who have been wrongfully incarcerated since 1989, Yahoo Finance previously reported how it’s cost a total of $4.12 billion via trials and housing the inmates in prison.

Americans have shelled out $4.12 billion to incarcerate innocent men and women since 1989. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

‘When we start to humanize and tell those success stories...’

Legislation is slowing starting to address prison reform issues.

The Second Chance Act, a bill aimed at creating programs to ease the process of reentry for people released from incarceration and to reduce recidivism, was signed into law in 2008. Congress reauthorized the legislation in 2017.

In December 2018, President Trump signed the First Step Act into law, a bipartisan bill aimed at prison and sentencing reform. Components include reducing sentences for certain federal drug offenses and incentivizing prisoners to participate in recidivism-reducing programs. The president also granted clemency to a pair of non-violent drug offenders, Alice Johnson and Crystal Munoz.

Gregory Allen, a First Step Act beneficiary, right, salutes after being invited to the podium to speak by President Donald Trump, left, during the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration on April 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Budnick had advice for advocates who want this trend to continue.

“Keep doing what you’re doing,” he said. “Keep having those conversations. Sit in that State Capitol and meet everyone that you can. And just get an army of people that have been through it and tell those stories.”

Adriana is a reporter and editor for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at adriana@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.


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