My freshman year at Yale I got a letter from my biological father with unwelcome news. He had a new neighbor, my childhood friend Lorenzo. They were on the same cell block in maximum-security prison. Lorenzo’s imprisonment felt like fate. We came from different worlds: He was poor, black and an immigrant, while I was upper middle class, white and U.S.-born. As a black man, he had a 1 in 3 chance of serving time at some point in his life. What we had in common, however, was a significant risk factor for incarceration: Lorenzo and I became friends over many years of visiting our mothers behind bars. For him the odds played out.
I was luckier, if you can call this luck: Steel gates, correctional officer uniforms, guard towers and razor wire were details I was far too young to remember the first time I navigated them. Prisons have been inscribed in my consciousness like the indelible ink stamped on my hand before entering the visiting room. I’ve always been one of the more than half of Americans with an immediate family member currently or formerly incarcerated.
In 1981, my parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, were arrested for their role in a radicals’ plot to rob an armored car. Three men were tragically killed. I was just 14 months old. I had been dropped at the babysitter. My mother and father, who drove a getaway car in the robbery, wrongly assumed no one would get hurt; they planned to return to pick me up in the evening. Eventually, I was adopted into a new family, winning two big brothers in the process.
I’ve seen the system’s injustices first hand and its potential to recognize that people can grow beyond their worst mistakes. My mother is one of those people.
My father chose to represent himself and, after a jury trial — much of which he did not attend — a judge sentenced him to 75 years to life. After extensive litigation with excellent lawyers on her side, my mother pleaded guilty; the judge sentenced her to 20 years to life. Our laws offer such vast discretion and disparate outcomes that my parents, who played virtually identical roles in their crime, ended up with a 55-year difference in their minimum sentences. Meanwhile, Lorenzo’s mother, a casualty of the war on drugs, served nearly two decades for possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
Our system of mass incarceration wreaks havoc on the families and communities left behind: Economic, social and psychological, the costs are impossible to fully quantify. Growing up, I grappled with developmental challenges and traumas common among children with incarcerated parents. When I didn’t learn to read until I was 9, my mother urged me to be more like Lorenzo, who excelled in school. When I had a temper tantrum on a prison visit, sometimes it was Lorenzo who talked me down.
Yet I had opportunities and privileges not available to Lorenzo and the other mostly brown and black kids filling prison visiting rooms across the country. My grandparents helped pay for tutors and child behavior specialists; Lorenzo’s family didn’t have the money to hire an immigration lawyer when he needed one.
With the vast support of family and friends I overcame the challenges and stigma of parental incarceration; I learned to channel the hurt into productive outlets. I chose to side with underdogs and took injustices around me, however slight, as personal affronts. My role models were lawyers dedicated to social justice and extending the benefits of the rule of law to traditionally excluded communities.
Once I was on track academically, law school seemed almost inevitable. I became a defense attorney, and now I’m running for district attorney in San Francisco. Fair and just prosecution, just as much as righteous defense, can be a crucial tool to advance justice.
During my senior year of college I threw myself into my mother’s parole campaign, working with some of the same lawyers who had represented her 22 years earlier. Few moments could have driven home the power of the law more intensely or personally than visiting my imprisoned father at the precise moment my mother walked out of another prison a few hundred miles away, a free woman. She went on to earn a PhD and founded a criminal justice reform organization at Columbia University.
Every day I work with judges and prosecutors, with police officers and sheriff’s deputies, with people accused of crimes and the communities torn apart by it. I’ve seen the system’s injustices first hand and its potential to recognize that people can grow beyond their worst mistakes. My mother is one of those people.
For good and ill, my life and criminal justice have been inseparably intertwined. Now I’m part of a bipartisan movement to fix what is broken in it. In December, Republicans and Democrats joined forces to pass significant criminal justice reform, which emphasized rehabilitation over incarceration. In California, a barrage of smart-on-crime legislation has been coming out of Sacramento: reduced sentences for low-level crimes, money bail reform, rule changes that help put only those responsible for a killing on trial for murder. Some prosecutors and law enforcement agencies resist such changes in the law, but I’m convinced such reforms improve public safety.
There are some things no one can change: Those killed can never be brought back. My father has spent more than half his life behind bars with no hope of parole. Lorenzo’s mother was eventually released, but Lorenzo was deported to a country he has never known.
The system I know from the inside out, however, can be changed. After decades of failed, costly, draconian policies, it can be turned toward equal treatment, an end to mass incarceration and redemption and rehabilitation instead of recidivism. We can make our cities and our state safer and more just for everyone.
Chesa Boudin has been a public defender in San Francisco since 2012. He will be on the San Francisco ballot for district attorney in the November election.
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