Talking to James Houston today, it’s difficult to imagine the troubled young man he was back in 1996, when he shot and killed a neighbor during an argument.

He spent 17 years behind bars at San Quentin State Prison, where he earned a college degree, became an addiction counselor and even pitched a tech startup to some Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

But before 2009, even a model inmate like Houston had little chance of ever leaving prison. The parole board was reluctant to let “lifers” out, and when it did, the governor would often overturn its decision. In 2000, for example, 13 lifers were released as Gov. Pete Wilson reversed 92 percent of the parole board’s findings that year.

But that began to change when a key California Supreme Court ruling limited the reasons that lifers may be denied parole. The board and the governor can no longer consider the severity of the crime alone, and they now have to ask how dangerous the person is today.

In 2012, 443 lifers got out as Gov. Jerry Brown let 81 percent of the parole board’s decisions stand. At a recent rally for victims’ rights, Brown said, “I’m worried about a number of things, but after we catalog our worries, we have to do what our job is, and I try to do that with common sense and a certain degree of compassion.”

The recidivism rate for lifers is less than 1 percent, according to the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

James Houston has two jobs. By day, he drives Richmond’s roughest blocks looking for the young men most likely to shoot someone or be shot. He’s an outreach worker at the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety, which many credit as an important reason violent crime is reducing in the city.

“A lot of these kids have never had a man take an interest in them without eventually asking for something in return,” said Houston.

At night he’s an addiction counselor at Options Recovery Services in downtown Berkeley. Just-released lifers go there to get help finding housing, employment and things like a ride to Target to buy a toothbrush and soap.

A year after his release, Houston has moved from transitional housing to a tidy house in Richmond, where he checks his 6-year-old stepson’s homework while his wife makes lasagna. The couple knew each other as teenagers, and reconnected decades later when she sent him a letter at San Quentin.

His older son, James Jr., was 10 months old when he went to prison. Now 18, James Jr. keeps a large stack of letters Houston wrote him from prison. “I wanted to be like ‘Leave It to Beaver’– to be able to kiss my son on the cheek, show him a different type of man,” said Houston.

He now has a second chance.


Jeremy Raff

Jeremy Raff is a multimedia producer interested in migration, rural change, and health disparities. He produces KQED's community health series Vital Signs. Reach him at

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