William Brangham: Keith Wattley is the founding executive director of UnCommon Law, a group that helps people who are serving life sentences navigate the parole process.
Here, he shares his Brief But Spectacular take on changing the narrative about people who commit violent crimes.
Keith Wattley, Founding Executive Director, UnCommon Law: I have studied thousands of people who’ve committed violent crimes. The people who commit violent crimes are not evil. They’re usually just scared.
I immerse myself in the traumatic experiences that people have. I do that in order to help them understand why they commit violent crimes, so that they can create a pathway out of prison. And that looks like months or years of one-on-one counseling, guiding people to do the introspection that they need to do to understand why they made some of the decisions they did.
Once they trust us to share with us their most painful, shameful secrets, that’s when we can do the work. Nationwide, there are a couple hundred thousand people serving life sentences. Most of the ones we’re talking about are serving life with the possibility of parole.
And if the parole board finds that they can safely be released, they grant them parole. Most of the time, they deny parole. When I first started in this work, it really didn’t seem to matter what people did in prison to change their lives. The parole board focused on the crime to decide whether this person should ever be released.
What has happened over time is the work we do now matters in their consideration of someone’s readiness for parole. And because people are doing the work, they’re ready. We have a better than 60 percent rate of our clients being granted parole at their hearings, compared to the state averages around 20 to 25 percent.
The people we have worked with, they have so dramatically changed who they are and who they associate with and how they relate to the rest of the world that they are extremely unlikely to ever commit a new violent crime. We have had more than 200 of our clients now released from their life sentences. Not one of them has ever gone on to be convicted of a new violent crime.
Just this — just this morning, I actually had a client who was released from prison after 33 years. And he was first locked up when he was 16 for a murder that he committed because he was trying to act tough. He had just got beaten up, and he wanted to prove that he was tough.
Once he was willing to be vulnerable, to share himself with us and with the parole board, be honest about his crime, his history, his journey through prison, he was able to go home.
People are not the same as they were when they were teenagers. And it’s not just their age that’s changed, but they have changed who they are, how they relate to the world. They have gained an understanding in who they can be.
A lot of the people we work with go on to start their own programs, their own nonprofits, mentoring programs with people in juvenile halls and schools. And these are the people who can lead the charge to transform violence in these communities. And we need to give them an opportunity to do that.
My name is Keith Wattley, and this has been my Brief But Spectacular take on transforming the narrative about people who commit violent crimes.
William Brangham: You can watch more Brief But Spectacular videos online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.