Michael Mendoza is National Director for #cut50, a bipartisan initiative to reduce the US prison population. Recently, the Michelson 20MM Foundation partnered with #cut50 to host a prescreening of the Lynn Novick documentary series “College Behind Bars.” The event provided an opportunity for me to connect with Michael who agreed to share his story and the work of his organization. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length. 

Tell us about your personal journey and experience with the criminal justice system.

For me, growing up as a Mexican-American in Southern California in the mid-90s presented challenges in terms of poverty, gangs, and living under a multi-generational roof. Then, at the age of 15, I, unfortunately, made one of the worst decisions of my life when I participated in a gang-related murder. I was arrested, tried as an adult, and given a life sentence. 

During the first several years of my incarceration, I was completely and totally hopeless. I expected that I’d spend the rest of my life behind bars and die in prison.

But some amazing people fought for a change in the law that gave me an opportunity to prove that I was no longer that 15-year-old kid who made a really bad decision. I was a human being capable of change. And I demonstrated that change through education, remorse, and by making an effective plan for being successful upon my release. 

Through that experience, I’ve come to realize that it’s worth fighting for a better criminal justice system in order to improve our communities. 

That’s an amazing story. How did you become involved with #cut50? 

After being released in 2014, I became passionate about criminal justice advocacy. I joined the Anti-Recidivism Coalition as a member. They provide platforms for formerly incarcerated people as well as housing programs and advocacy training. I was eventually invited to join the board of directors and then was hired to serve as policy director. And from there I transitioned to the Dream Corps, the organization that #cut50 is a program of. Dream Corps does an amazing job bringing people together across all racial, economic, and political stripes to create a future of freedom and dignity for all.

Detail the work going on at #cut50 and Dream Corps. 

At #cut50 we see ourselves as a bipartisan effort to cut crime and incarceration across all 50 states. Under Dream Corps, we have two other great programs – Green For All and Dream Corps Tech (formerly Yes We Code). Green For All fights for a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. They work at the intersection of the environmental, economic, and racial justice movements to advance solutions to poverty and pollution, at the same time. And Dream Corps Tech is a program that opens doors to careers of the future, centered around tech and tech skills — they’re cultivating leaders and entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds, including formerly incarcerated people, creating a pipeline of diverse talent that will shift the culture of the tech sector.

That’s fantastic. What are some of the big wins #cut50 has had recently?

There are two that I’m particularly proud of. There’s the First Step Act, which is the most significant change to the federal criminal justice system in a generation, according to the New York Times. It reformed some of the harshest and most unfair federal sentences like third-strike life sentences for drug offenses and retroactively applied the disparity between crack and powder cocaine that was passed in 2010. The bill has already resulted in  more than 7,000 people coming home in 2019 with significantly reduced terms of incarceration and tens of thousands more who have benefitted.. It also includes improvements to the compassionate release process for sick and elderly people who are incarcerated in federal prison at great expense to their dignity and federal prison budgets — giving judges, not just the Bureau of Prisons, the opportunity to grant relief in these cases.. And a component of the act is the expansion of both Good Time credits and Earned Time Credits, where people who demonstrate good behavior and who participate in programming inside can be released earlier. It also reauthorized the Second Chance Act, which gives out nearly $100 million in grants every year to support reentry for people coming out of incarceration nationwide. 

The other recent success that I am really proud of is California’s SB 394, the Primary Caregiver Pretrial Diversion Act. The effort was led by Erin Haney, our Senior Counsel, along with several formerly incarcerated women who shared their stories with lawmakers like Ashleigh Carter and her daughter Asia, Heidi De Leon, Akilah Sands and others. It builds upon progress in Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Louisiana but the California bill is the first-of-its-kind in the nation because it’s actually a pre-plea diversion program that is applied statewide, meaning people do not have to plead guilty or be convicted of a crime to participate. Our view, supported by a wealth of data, is that incarceration, while devastating, is just one of several oppressive and damaging collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. So keeping unnecessary convictions off of people’s records by ensuring the pre-plea nature of this court was a big priority for Erin and our team — and a huge win for parents and caregivers in California at risk of the many lasting and severe consequences that accompany criminal convictions. The new law will go into effect in 2020 and we are really focused on proper implementation and data collection, so we can share lessons learned across the country. 

Congratulations on those victories. #cut50 prides itself on the fact that its campaigns are led by people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. Why is that important?

Formerly incarcerated individuals have an intimate experience with what’s it like to be dehumanized or over-sentenced or locked away in solitary confinement for an extended period. And those experiences give us an upper hand in understanding the issue at a very deep level and providing an important perspective and voice for the movement of reimagining justice. When I sit down with a lawmaker, or a District Attorney — I can speak as a former juvenile lifer or as someone who spent 17 years in prison, or as someone who was once on lifetime parole – I can speak to those policy issues in a very tangible way to not only build understanding and support for reform, but also empathy for others in those circumstances. So everyone on our team, even if they haven’t been incarcerated themselves, they have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system — some have loved ones who have been incarcerated, others have been survivors of crime or had friends or family who have been victimized, and all of us are able to craft solutions and build support for reforming the system through our own experiences. 

What role does higher education play in criminal justice reform?  

I can’t overemphasize this: education is crucial to reforming the criminal justice system. Education is public safety. The first time I ever took a college class in 2006 while in prison it opened my mind and caused me to think about my situation and why I was there. And it was simply writing an essay that a professor assigned. It made me reflect on my biography and who I was, as an individual. And the feedback encouraged me to continue my education. The 2.2 million people who are incarcerated should be receiving educational opportunities that get them to think differently and prepare them for a successful re-entry. 

Now that the First Step Act and the Second Chance Act grant program have been fully funded, we have to ensure that funds are spent expanding opportunities for education inside of prisons and also for people after they are released.

We’re also reforming parole in California by allowing individuals to earn credits that would allow them to get paroled sooner if they pursue and complete their degrees or vocational studies. Not only do we want to incentivize people coming home to continue their education, but we want to remove the barrier of supervision once they show they are going above and beyond the conditions of their parole. So we’re looking forward to continuing to work with partners in the education space and providing our unique perspective. 

The Michelson 20MM Foundation and #cut50 share a partner in Root and Rebound. Tell us about your partnership with them. 

Root and Rebound has an amazing staff who we worked with in creating a guide called, First Step to Second Chances. It’s a reference manual for people preparing to come home or have already re-entered, specifically targeting those coming out of federal prison under the First Step Act. I think it’s probably the first comprehensive, national guide for people coming out of the federal prison system and I’m very proud of that collaboration.

A few months before my release I was wondering where I was going to get things that I’d need like an ID or birth certificate. Where would I get these resources if I only have $200 to my name? And this reference manual is almost a safety net to help people make the adjustment. It’s an example of how partnerships between organizations are critical to effectively bring about change within the system. 

Criminal justice reform is a bipartisan issue. How has #cut50 navigated the political climate in California and D.C. to promote its work?

I have to give credit to our co-founders Van Jones, Jessica Jackson, Matt Haney and the rest of the #cut50 team for even opening the door. I never thought I’d be at the White House or state capitols meeting with so many incredible leaders and supporters of criminal justice reform — from both parties. When I share my story with lawmakers, it really makes an impact on a room. It puts a human face on the issue and creates empathy. So whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, when it comes to bipartisanship, we look for common ground that will lead to healthier communities and more opportunities for people to come home to. We’ve found a lot of support in really unlikely places – and I think that’s a credit to all the work that has been done to bring both parties into a more positive position on this issue. People on the Left have been organizing for decades to get Democrats to support reforms — and people on the Right have too! It’s great to see all that hard work begin to pay off as we see more and more opportunities to come together to pass policies that reduce the prison population and make communities safer.

We appreciate your leadership on that front. What’s on your horizon for #cut50? 

Next year we want to continue making sure the First Step Act is implemented correctly, that these programs are being funded, that the compassionate and elderly release processes are working like they’re supposed to, and that Good Time and Earned Time credits are being applied. We’re also working toward putting on a successful National Day of Empathy on March 25th, partnering with organizations across the country, in all 50 states, to host events that bring Americans impacted by the criminal justice system together  with federal, state, and local lawmakers to share their experiences and promote criminal justice reform. The success of all our campaigns really hinges on generating empathy, often, from unlikely allies.