Race as a Proxy for Risk

How the discretionary parole process undermines BIPOC communities.

Why are Black people nearly 3 times less likely to be granted parole on average? And why is the Board of Parole Hearings - the body that decides who comes home and who stays in prison - staffed almost entirely with people from law enforcement backgrounds?

Between 60% and 70% of people serving life sentences are BIPOC. And despite preliminary research showing race as a key indicator in parole outcomes, the Board of Parole Hearings and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have fought releasing additional data that would allow researchers to determine the extent of the parole board’s improper reliance on race as a factor in determining someone’s “risk to the public.” UnCommon Law and ChangeLawyers will walk you through the ins and outs of parole. Our panelists will discuss how we can build new and better ways for people to come home safely.

Many experts have linked the over-incarceration of BIPOC communities directly to the devastating legacies of slavery: intergenerational trauma, cycles of poverty, and systemic racism. These effects on communities of color have been profound; research shows that people incarcerated for violent crime have experienced 4 times the rate of childhood trauma compared to the general population. Join UnCommon Law and ChangeLawyers as we explore whether our society is willing to offer healing to those who are both survivors and perpetrators of violence.

Meet Your Activists

Keith Wattley, Founder and Executive Director of UnCommon Law, received his B.A. in Psychology from Indiana University and his J.D. from Santa Clara University School of Law. He has been advocating for the rights of people in prison and on parole for more than 20 years. Prior to launching UnCommon Law in 2006, Keith was a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit law firm in Berkeley. At UnCommon Law, he has focused on helping people transform their lives and demonstrate to the parole board that they can safely be released from their life sentences. He has also engaged in impact litigation and individual cases involving unlawful prison and parole conditions, and he has trained hundreds of lawyers, law students and others in advocating for the rights of incarcerated people.

In 2018, Keith was selected as one of the Obama Foundation’s inaugural Fellows, in recognition of his unique legal model and vision. In 2020, he was awarded the James Irvine Foundation's Leadership Award. Keith has been active on several boards of directors, and is co-chair of the Institutional Review Board (human subjects committee) for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. He was also a member of the Founding Board of Directors for the Prison University Project (San Quentin’s College Program) and a member of the Board of Directors for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. Keith currently teaches a course titled "California Prisons and Discretionary Parole" at UC Berkeley School of Law where he also supervises the Post-Conviction Advocacy Project.

Nicole D. Porter manages The Sentencing Project’s state and local advocacy efforts on sentencing reform, voting rights, and eliminating racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Her advocacy has supported criminal justice reforms in several states including Kentucky, Missouri, and California. Porter was named a "New Civil Rights Leader" by Essence Magazine for her work to eliminate mass incarceration.

Since joining The Sentencing Project in 2009, Porter's work has been cited in several major media outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio. She has given a number of talks on state sentencing policy, collateral consequences, and racial disparity to various audiences including the League of Women Voters, NAACP, and the United Methodist Women's Assembly.

Porter is the former director of the Texas ACLU’s Prison & Jail Accountability Project (PJAP). PJAP’s mission was to monitor the conditions of confinement in state jails and prisons. Porter advocated in the Texas legislature to promote felony enfranchisement reforms, to eliminate prison rape, and improve prison medical care. Porter received her undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin. Her master’s thesis addressed exploring self employment among formerly incarcerated African Americans. She also studied African Politics at the University of Ghana, West Africa.

Zach Norris is the Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, author of Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment, and co-founder of Restore Oakland, a community advocacy and training center that will empower Bay Area community members to transform local economic and justice systems and make a safe and secure future possible for themselves and for their families. Zach is also a co-founder of Justice for Families, a national alliance of family-driven organizations working to end our nation’s youth incarceration epidemic.

Zach helped build California’s first statewide network for families of incarcerated youth which led the effort to close five youth prisons in the state, passed legislation to enable families to stay in contact with their loved ones, and defeated Prop 6—a destructive and ineffective criminal justice ballot measure.

Defund Fear, released in 2020 (formerly titled We Keep Us Safe), has been praised by Forbes, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, and Kirkus Reviews.

In addition to being a Harvard graduate and NYU-educated attorney, Zach is also a graduate of the Labor Community Strategy Center’s National School for Strategic Organizing in Los Angeles, California and was a 2011 Soros Justice Fellow. He is a former board member at Witness for Peace, Just Cause Oakland and Justice for Families. Zach was a recipient of the American Constitution Society’s David Carliner Public Interest Award in 2015, and is a member of the 2016 class of the Levi Strauss Foundation’s Pioneers of Justice.

Zach is a loving husband and dedicated father of two bright daughters, whom he is raising in his hometown of Oakland, California.

Emile is a black community organizer, literary writer, and journalist who co-founded prisonrenaissance.org while serving a 67 years to life sentence in prison. He participated in the passage of Senate Bills 260, 261, and Proposition 57. His personal essays have been published in Rumpus and Seventh Wave, and his op-eds have been published in the Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle. His sentence was commuted by Gov. Jerry Brown in December 2017 for his community service, his productivity, and his story of transformation. Emile is currently working full-time as a product specialist for Pilot.com while working part-time as a guest lecturer and freelance writer.