Scott Budnick, a Hollywood executive producer best known for The Hangover movies, has spent the last 12 years helping hundreds of young people star in sequels of their own: life after prison. He was moved to this type of advocacy after visiting a juvenile facility with a friend. Soon after, he volunteered to teach writing classes at the facility, becoming a mentor to many of his students and maintaining those relationships once they were released. Then in 2013, after nearly a decade of working with young offenders, Budnick founded the Anti Recidivism Coalition, a support and advocacy network of volunteer mentors and allies. ARC has made Budnick famous outside of Hollywood; he’s a star in the world of justice-reform advocacy.
For the past year, alongside many nonprofits and concerned citizens, Budnick has been devoting his efforts to advocating for Proposition 57, which would end the “direct file” power that California district attorneys gained in 2000 that allows them to decide whether a young offender should be tried in juvenile or adult court. Prop. 57 would also restore good-time credits to prisoners and would allow parole for those convicted of nonviolent offenses. Voters will decide on Prop. 57 in November; in the meantime, Budnick is hard at work. He and I spoke recently about his advocacy; an edited and abridged version of our conversation follows.
Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: What specifically have you done in the Prop. 57 effort?
Scott Budnick: I worked with some other advocates for juveniles in drafting the wording for the juvenile piece of the measure, which eliminates direct file by prosecutors and gives judges, who have much more information about who the child is, the decision as to whether to send them to the adult system or keep them in juvenile court. I was also very involved in partnership with the governor’s office in crafting the two other pieces of Prop. 57, which is parole consideration for nonviolent offenders and rehabilitation credits for others in prison.
Lantigua-Williams: The governor decided to introduce adult provisions into what was originally a bill about juvenile offenders.
Budnick: If you think about it, it’s not juvenile versus adult. The juveniles who we’re talking about in a direct-file piece are going to adult prison, going to adult court, and getting adult sentences. They’re only juvenile in age. In California, they’re not treated as juveniles. Once they’re direct filed, in every part of their contact with the system they become an adult.
Lantigua-Williams: California has been leading the charge in terms of trying to reduce incarcerations. Do you see Prop. 57 as an overall play toward that?
Budnick: I don’t think it’s an ambitious plan to decarcerate. The governor obviously has a population cap that judges have given him for the system, and the governor realizes that the people who are leaving prison under our current mechanism have no incentive to rehabilitate whatsoever. They can just sit in prison. Imagine if you had a nine-year determinate sentence: You could sit and shoot up heroin and continue gang politics, and you’re still getting released in nine years. There’s nothing that you need to do before then. You could get drunk every night in prison, party, have fun, and there is nothing that forces you to change, that forces you to go to education programs, forces you to get a job, forces you to learn a trade, forces you to go to therapy. None of that exists right now. The people who are actually getting out of prison under our current system have no incentive to change whatsoever.
That’s why Prop. 57 includes the rehabilitation credits for educational achievements, GEDs, college, jobs, career technical education. You incentivize someone with the ability to get out a few months earlier, a year earlier. If they’ve completed all these things, all the evidence points to reduced recidivism. What makes a safer community is the amount of people who decide to change. Decide to not use drugs anymore. Decide to not involve themselves in gangs.
Every single person in prison who makes that decision comes out and makes us a safer community. If we can triple that number, quadruple that number, go 10 times that number of people—who choose to change and come into the community, are now college students, are now union workers or working at businesses, are not gang members, are not drug dealers, and are not drug addicts—that’s real public safety. This is one of the smartest measures that has ever been put forward. It’s really, really smart on crime.
Lantigua-Williams: Let’s talk about the young people you’re helping. What has been the feedback from those who have been tried as adults and gone through the adult system in the last 16 years?
Budnick: Obviously, when you go in as a kid, your number-one thought is on surviving. You’re the smallest; you’re the youngest. You’re in a system with people who are much older and much more sophisticated. Some of them are dangerous. Survival’s the number-one thing. You have two paths when you go in. One path is toward the light, toward education and programming, and toward rehabilitation. The other path is into the stuff that you already know. That’s easy. That doesn’t involve change. It involves all the things that got you caught up with in the first place.
How do we push more kids toward the light and toward that positive path from the very beginning? I think Prop. 57 does that. How do you have somebody who’s now coming out 20 years later—after going in at 16 years old, they’re coming out at 36—how do you give them the skills to actually compete in today’s workforce? To get a job in today’s workforce? To get into college or to continue in college?
You do it by getting involved and trained in all those things while you’re inside, so it’s not idle time. You’re actually a college student inside. You’re actually learning a trade inside, so that when you walk out, you’re going to have life skills. You’re going to start to understand technology. You’re going to start to be able to use technology. You’re going to start to have a résumé and a driver’s license and all those things on hand already when you come out. It prepares people so much better and gets them on their feet to succeed rather than going back to what they know and what they’ve always known.
Lantigua-Williams: The notion of restorative justice for victims often comes up when these types of measures are discussed. What would you say to someone who comes at you with that argument?
Budnick: I could introduce you to a thousand victims of crime who believe very strongly that children are different than adults and should be punished differently than adults—who believe that how we get to fewer victims in the future, less violence, and more public safety is by giving people an incentive and a chance to rehabilitate. I don’t think there’s one voice of victims out there. We have a lot of organizations for survivors of crime that are supportive of Prop. 57.
Ultimately, how do we get to more healing for victims, how do we get to a safer society and fewer victims? Giving people the chance to rehabilitate and the resources to rehabilitate while they’re inside. Then, giving them the resources they need to reenter society in a way that allows them to set their life up for success. I think there are hundreds, if not thousands, of victims here in California who would agree with that.
This article is part of our Next America: Criminal Justice project, which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.