Newsom’s Poster Child of Criminal Justice Reform Is an Outlier Used to Cover Up His Failures

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AP Photo/ Aaron Kehoe

The Los Angeles Times did a puff piece on Jarad Nava, a former convict who now works in the California State Capitol as an assistant for the Department of Public Safety

In his tan suit and gold tie, Jarad Nava blends in easily at the California Capitol, as though he’s always belonged to its mahogany and rose-hued halls.
But underneath the button-down shirt — unseen and unimaginable to those who don’t know his story — tattoos evoke his former life: on his arms, the name of a park his gang claimed as territory, rolling dice and an inked-over “P” that had represented Pomona; on his chest, flames licking up the base of his neck.
Just a few years ago, Nava was serving a 162-year sentence for a crime he committed when he was 17.
Now 28, the young man who once thought he’d never see the outside of a prison works as an assistant for the state Senate Public Safety Committee, an influential panel of lawmakers who review legislation related to the criminal justice system.

If you’re doing the math, Nava barely served eight years of his sentence. The L.A. Times soft-pedals this fact and the reasons he received such a long sentence. As a gang member, admittedly in a drug-induced state, Nava fired shots into a moving vehicle with four teenage girls who purportedly were connected to a rival gang. One of those young ladies was pregnant at the time. All lived to identify Nava and see him convicted. Tragically, one of the women, then 16-year-old Yesenia Castro, was permanently paralyzed from the incident. So, how did Nava draw the lucky straw?  

The irony is not lost on Nava, who eventually won his freedom by learning to atone and accept, truly accept, responsibility for what he had done. It required disciplined work, a newfound faith and, as Nava put it, serious reflection on what “led to me shooting at a car with four people in it.”

It wasn’t quite as magical as the L.A. Times makes out. Nava’s freedom also required that he get the eye and ear of Governor Gavin Newsom. This governor cannot seem to solve the ulcerous homeless crisis in California, but he has not failed to keep his progressive promises for criminal justice reform 

Since taking office, the Governor has placed a moratorium on the death penalty, bolstered support for victims and survivors of crime, ended the state’s use of private for-profit prisons, taken action to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, announced sweeping reforms to end juvenile imprisonmentadvanced jury representationexpanded the number of Board of Parole commissioners, signed legislation to build trust between communities and law enforcement, and announced record-level funding to bolster public safety, including through the Real Public Safety plan.

Yet crime in California continues to rise. California ranks 17th in national violent crime rates. From 2021 to 2023, reported violent crime has increased by 6.1 percent. Property-related crimes have increased by 6.2 percent. Violent crimes and property-related offenses like burglary and pickpocketing are ranked at the top, with retail crime a close second. 

Criminal justice reform also has not been a winning proposition. Thanks to the directives of progressive Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, a convicted juvenile rapist (at the time) named James “Hannah” Tubbs only received a two-year sentence for raping a 10-year-old girl. Tubbs turned 18 the day after the incident, which, under Gascón’s new directives, allowed him to skirt being tried as an adult. Gascón’s criminal justice reforms also removed any violent crime enhancements. After his two-year stint, Tubbs would have likely been paroled due to the fact that he decided that he wanted to identify as female. During his period of “transition,” Tubbs went on to commit other crimes, including bludgeoning a friend with a rock. In this case, he was tried as an adult for murder and was sentenced to 15 years. 

Tubbs is just one among several examples of criminal justice reform gone wrong. In 2009, Jae Williams (then 15) and Randy Thompson (then 16) stabbed their 15-year-old classmate, Michael Russell, in the back because they wanted to know what it felt like to murder someone. After only serving 13 years of a 26-year sentence, both men were released this month thanks to SB 1391, a law that overturned the sentences of underaged youths who were tried as adults.

The two teens had journals where they drew doodles and wrote descriptions of horrific acts, The Mercury News reported, and meticulously planned the Nov. 10, 2009 killing.
“One chilling aspect of this case is that Jae and Randy selectively ‘befriended’ Mikey for the exclusive purpose of murdering him — it was a long-term plan to gain Mikey’s trust so they could get close to him,” Scotty Storey, the Russell family’s attorney, told Fox News Digital. “The unimaginable terror Mikey must have felt being killed by his ‘friends’…”
But the State Senate passed Senate Bill 1391 in 2018, prohibiting anyone under the age of 16 from being charged as an adult. 
“When it came in as a proposition, we absolutely protested,” Russell’s aunt, Cathy Russell, told Fox News Digital. “We wrote letters. We had the community involved. We did everything we could possibly do, but it was ultimately passed.”

Tubbs and Thompson are not exactly poster children for the governor’s utopian fantasies. Enter Hollywood producer Scott Budnick, who ultimately gave Newsom his camera-ready ingenu and gave Nava 15 minutes of fame, along with his life back.

In 2018, lawyers at the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic — encouraged by film producer Scott Budnick — took interest in Nava’s case.
While in juvenile hall, Nava had met Budnick — a producer of the “Hangover” films and founder of the nonprofit Anti-Recidivism Coalition — who was teaching a creative writing class.Jarad Nava, left, and his mentor Scott Budnick, who helped produce “They Call Us Monsters,” a documentary that featured Nava and two other teenagers in a film-writing class who were being tried as adults. (Jarad Nava)
Budnick also helped produce “They Call Us Monsters,” a documentary that featured Nava and two other teenagers in a film-writing class who were being tried as adults.
“He was dynamic, personable, challenging, a handful, just like a little bit of a wild kid,” Budnick said.
“But you know when you see that spark, and you know when someone is remorseful, and you know when they have some of those core qualities that can make them very successful? I saw all of that in him,” Budnick said.

In 2020, Nava was teed up by Budnick for the California governor.  

Budnick had never met Newsom until the Just Mercy campaign, when the film was screened for governors across the country. Another guest at the Newsom screening in Sacramento was Jarrett Harper, who had been sentenced to life without parole when he was 17 for murdering the man who molested he and his brother when they were in their 38th foster home. His sentence was ultimately commuted by former California governor Jerry Brown in June 2019.
Budnick had hired him to become an ambassador for Just Mercy
“After the movie, the governor and the first lady are incredibly emotional. I went up to him and said, ‘Governor, I’m glad you enjoyed the film. I’d love to use the film to help you in anything you want to do in criminal justice reform.’ I introduced Jarrett and told him his story, and the governor just broke down. They probably had a minute-long hug and the governor said, ‘Thank you for being here face to face to show me the effect I can have on people’s lives if we do this smartly.’” 
“He looked at his team and told them to look for righteous people who were deserving of commutations. Three weeks later, he commuted his first people in his first year of office. Now he’s commuted up to 100 people and pardoned another 100 in his first two years of office, and we’ve worked together on multiple bills”—including the one related to incarcerated firefighters.

Jarad Nava was paroled on December 20, 2020, a few days after the above-referenced article was published.

While it is admirable that Nava chose to turn his life around, was justice truly served by commuting his sentence to such a degree? What about his victims? And why would anyone allow Nava to be so close to policy decisions that involve the criminal justice system? 

These are questionable decisions from a governor with questionable motives. With Newsom’s debate on Thursday with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, it might behoove the moderator to push Newsom for answers. Nava is being used as a convenient tool for the California legislature to further seed criminal justice funding and reform and as a feather in Newsom’s cap toward his ambitions for higher office.

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