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Keith Wattley

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Fellow Keith Wattley from 2018 Obama Foundation Fellows.

One in seven of the 2.2 million people in our nation’s prisons are serving life sentences, including 31% of California inmates. To win release, they have to demonstrate personal transformation—but few have a chance to find that in prison. Most have experienced severe abuse, neglect, poverty, and addiction, including thousands who were sentenced when they were still minors. To refuse them counseling to overcome that trauma, and to lock them in environments that exacerbate it, is especially cruel. With few opportunities for healing and transformation, the system sets incarcerated people up to fail at every parole hearing, and keeps them from becoming productive citizens.

Wattley has represented lifers at parole hearings for his full 18-year career, developing an intensive rehabilitation model to help transform their lives. He invests months or years with each one in pre-parole-board prep work, holding regular, in-depth, in-person conversations; poring over past hearing transcripts; and helping each one to plan a detailed path out, including counseling and programming. He also works across the system to teach lifers’ families, public defenders, and other lawyers and law students what they can do to ensure that all lifers ultimately have a fairer shot. His nonprofit firm, UnCommon Law (Opens in a new tab), has helped 180 lifers to win release; the only return to prison was due to an immigration violation, showing commissioners that release works and giving thousands of other lifers hope to change, too. The firm is unique in taking up the cause of violent, mature lifers who have transformed their lives in prison, emphasizing agency and redemption.

Nelson Mandela

Face to Face with the Fellows: Keith Wattley

Keith was awarded the 2020 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award, which recognizes leaders with innovation, determination, and passion" who represent the best of California. It comes with $250,000!