UnCommon Law is transforming our criminal justice system with a unique healing-centered approach that involves counseling and legal assistance for people serving lengthy prison sentences. We aim to nearly quadruple the number of people granted parole each year while employing currently and formerly incarcerated people as counselors. Executive Director Keith Wattley, an inaugural Obama Foundation Fellow, has developed a groundbreaking model that grew from his family’s experience with incarceration and unresolved trauma. He has helped hundreds of life-sentenced people win their freedom and transition home safely and productively. For nearly 13 years, UnCommon Law has worked with incarcerated people (individually and in groups) to first understand how their traumatic experiences contributed to their actions in harming others and then develop new thinking patterns and coping skills. This work requires a level of honesty and vulnerability that is all but forbidden within the brutal confines of our prisons. However, those who succeed in this work emerge from prison with the emotional intelligence and communication skills critical to helping others change their lives. Many go on to serve as mentors and violence interrupters in their home communities.
California's state budget for 2019-2020 includes funding for our three-year “Restorative Needs Pilot” program, which will make our model available to everyone whose release from prison is dependent upon the parole board - currently, more than half of those incarcerated in the state. This pilot represents a major culture shift inside our prisons. A key component involves training people who are currently and formerly incarcerated to do the counseling and guidance work currently undertaken by lawyers, social workers and other therapists at UnCommon Law. We will coordinate our efforts with other service providers using restorative justice and other healing-focused models. We will create a therapeutic community in which participants have the space, opportunity, and support to openly re-visit their own traumatic histories and develop new understanding and coping skills. Meanwhile, we will employ people who are formerly incarcerated to use their own emotional intelligence, communication skills and lived experiences to guide the transformation of others still incarcerated.
From Pilot to Scale in Six Years
The pilot will focus on one or two prisons and include 300 to 400 participants, who will participate in group workshops and individual counseling. The pilot culminates in a comprehensive evaluation that will set the stage for statewide implementation by 2026 (and potentially nationally thereafter). With recent changes in the law, more than 8,000 people could soon be appearing before California’s parole board each year. This pilot ensures that all parole-eligible people will have access to the support they need to safely return home.