UnCommon Law is a non-profit law office in California that represents men and women sentenced to long terms or life sentences (“lifers”) at their parole hearings. Their work also encompasses a broader effort to educate and transform the current carceral system which leaves so many individuals languishing in prisons for decade upon decade.
For many years, California almost stopped granting parole. Hearings continued, but even men and women who presented compelling evidence that they had been rehabilitated and would be productive members of society were denied parole and remained incarcerated. Because parole is wrapped up in politics, frequently a Governor will categorically deny parole to maintain a reputation of being “tough on crime.”
UnCommon Law’s founder and primary attorney, Keith Wattley, works with prisoners to prepare for their hearings and to ensure that they have adequate legal backing and documentation during the process. Law students around California serve as interns to help individuals prepare for those hearings and to confront and acknowledge the impact of their crimes.
OF THE 150 CLIENTS UNCOMMON LAW HAS SUCCESSFULLY REPRESENTED THROUGH PAROLE AND RELEASE, NOT A SINGLE ONE HAS REOFFENDED AND RETURNED TO PRISON.
In a system beset by flaws, UnCommon Law has tapped into a process for supporting individuals with long incarceration terms to return to society and remain safe on the outside. Their success proves that it is worth giving people a second chance—even if they are guilty of significant crimes. Unlike the important work of organizations like the Innocence Project, UnCommon Law does not focus on unjust convictions. They focus on people who have committed crimes, who have turned their lives around while in prison, and who are seeking a new place and future in society.
OUR DAY WITH UNCOMMON LAW
We sat down with three former lifers, Troy, Eddy, and Ke, and their attorney, Keith Wattley. The meeting was emotional from the start—when we spoke, Ke had been ‘back in the world’ for only three weeks, and the other two were delighted to see him again. The last time they had been together was in a prison yard. Throughout the meeting, the four men shared their considerable insight into the criminal justice process, as well as sharing freely of their personal stories and struggles. They were empathetic and insightful. As Keith told us, “People don’t imagine these guys when they think about ‘Lifers.’ They have transformed themselves long before they got out.”
Keith framed this conversation as one strongly rooted in social justice and humane criminal justice reform. He was unequivocal in his advocacy for representation and change, even for those guilty of serious crimes. He said:
“When people talk about criminal justice reform, they usually talk about getting the nonviolent offenders out. That sounds good. But you have a huge number of violent offenders, and that’s a number you have to address to make real change.”
SUCCESS AFTER INCARCERATION
The three former lifers had a lot to say about why they are successful now that they are out of prison.
Troy said that the idea that ‘I might not ever go home’ demands self-reflection, and a long sentence allows time to really consider what this means and decide what to do with that time.
Eddy agreed, saying
“We learned to take responsibility for the negative impact we had, and to think about the alternatives. Some people give up, and plan to never get out. But we educated ourselves, engaged in programs, started our own projects. We learned to have a real appreciation of freedom. We took time to invest in ourselves, and became mentally free before we were physically free.”
Ke, a client at UnCommon Law
Ke added another dimension to the conversation, reflecting on the transformation he had experienced over the years. He said, “I learned the difference between living and surviving. I started living because I saw people with long sentences starting to go home. I invested that time and started connecting with family.”
Eddy grounded this conversation also in the scientifically-backed and lived personal experience that juveniles make decisions that adults would not. He said,
“Many of us were juveniles. We weren’t mature mentally or physically. The people we are now, as we are now would never do those kinds of crimes. We’re older. Those of us who have support from our families and community especially—we’re held accountable, and we know not to take freedom for granted.”
All three spoke about their efforts to influence others, particularly young people who are ‘at risk’ to transform their lives and find a more positive direction.
THE PAROLE PROCESS
Being granted parole is a grueling process, including extensive revisiting of the original crime, in addition to being required to prove that the person has changed his or her life. For many with indeterminate or life sentences, this process can be an exercise in repeated denials.
All three of the former lifers spoke movingly about the pain associated with the parole process, particularly for their families.
Eddy had an enormous body of evidence that he was rehabilitated, including testimony from Corrections Officers and support from individuals in the community. Despite this, he was denied parole, which he said was felt most keenly by his family who had believed completely that he would be let out and were heartbroken by the ruling.
Troy didn’t even tell his daughter the last two times he went before the Parole Board—he was too afraid of the pain a denial might cause her.
He said that being denied parole makes people question whether a person has actually turned their life around, no matter how much evidence there is to support their transformation.
All of our interviewees spoke with enormous gratitude for UnCommon Law and the support they received. Eddy said,
“You need a lawyer to take on the system. That’s a lifeline. Most of us don’t have money or resources. You hate to ask your family, they probably went broke trying to help in the first place. I had experience with the overworked and underpaid court appointed attorney, who I had no relationship with and was completely unprepared.”
Keith concluded the discussion by saying,
“I always tell clients ‘you be yourself. I advocate for you.’ I help the board see the good work clients have already done, and frame that in a way they can hear it. There’s work you can’t do for yourself. These guys got themselves home, but I translated their work into something the board understands.”
LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE
When we visited UnCommon Law, Ke had been out of prison only three weeks. He had already dived headfirst into life "back in the world," spending time with family and taking advantage of his new freedom--going bowling, mountain biking, eating at a buffet for the first time in his life, and going to a Giants game. He told us he hoped to volunteer as a Little League coach, and that ideally he would find work with an organization like Habitat for Humanity or a community bike shop for low-income individuals.
Troy spent 18 years in prison, and was denied parole four times before his successful fifth hearing. He said his greatest hope was to be able to apply his ‘new me’ in the world. He explained, “It’s one thing to not do something because you’re afraid of consequences. It’s another thing to understand the significance of your actions, and make a choice based on that.” He began working with theater groups on the inside, and is now filming for the Marin Shakespeare Company. He hopes to work with at-risk youth in relation to emotional literacy and financial competence, and works with prison education groups to train new facilitators.
Eddy has been "back in the world" since 2007. Before that, he spent 19 years in prison and two years in immigration detention. He said, “Education saved my life. It gave me a direction, and made me feel like my possibility was endless.” He went from an illiterate 16-year-old to a college graduate inside. He took public speaking lessons and participated in an alternatives to violence program. He organized with Asian-Pacific Islander at-risk youth. When he was released, an official said "If Eddy isn't the golden standard, who is?" Since his release he has spoken nationwide to thousands of people. He works with the Community Youth Center in San Francisco, is a City Commissioner, has served on re-entry service boards, is a published poet, and is an active member of Asian organizations. He said, " Before I was incarcerated, I believed that I wasn’t good at anything, and that I was a person without talent. Now I know I’m good at things. I’m good at speaking, building relationships, poetry...I’m good at a lot of things, and I use all of those skills now.”
The fact that UnCommon Law has successfully represented so many lifers, and that they have experienced such consistent success in the difficult process of reentry, suggests hope for the complex criminal justice system. We are enormously grateful for the good that can be done to allow energetic and introspective people a chance to return to society.