Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Hollywood producer and San Quentin inmate live worlds apart

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Scott Budnick, the fabulously successful producer of the “Hangover” movies, was dining on prosciutto and fig pizza with friends in the rooftop restaurant of the Luxe Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Monday night, when the Governor’s Office called.

Jerry Brown had signed legislation that was of special interest to Budnick. It had nothing to do with the big money stuff The Industry so often seeks from Sacramento. This bill could give a break to Miguel Quezada – who lives in a world far removed from Budnick’s – and guys like him.

Quezada was a month short of his 17th birthday on May 8, 1998, on a street with no sidewalks in the San Joaquin Valley town of Ceres, when he fired the bullet that ended Daniel Reyes’ life. Reyes was 16, too.

In October 1999, a Stanislaus County judge sentenced Quezada to 45 years to life in prison for second-degree murder. By terms of that sentence, he would not be eligible to file a plea for his release to a parole board until 2040, except that on Monday, Brown signed Senate Bill 260, a bill Budnick had championed.

Authored by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, SB 260 gives inmates serving life sentences for crimes they committed before they turned 18 an opportunity to convince parole boards that they deserve to be released. There are no guarantees, only a chance to plead their cases after they have spent at least 15 years behind bars.

In a legacy of the tough-on-crime laws passed in the 1990s and 2000, California prisons house 5,600 inmates serving time for crimes they committed before they turned 18. About 2,500 of them have served 15 years or more and would be eligible to petition parole boards, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports.

“It gives me hope,” Quezada said, getting used to the notion that he has a shot at parole before he becomes a senior citizen, if, through his actions, he can show he is worthy to be freed.

“They have a chance now to change their lives. I think that is epic,” Budnick told me by phone the day after Brown signed the bill.

Quezada grew up in Modesto, dropped out of school in the ninth grade and fell in with the Norteños street gang. Budnick, 37, grew up privileged in suburban Atlanta, the son of a physician and a college English teacher, who imparted the concept that service is important.

While attending Emory University, he landed a role as an extra in a Civil War movie and decided to try his hand at the movie business. He won a summer internship on “Baywatch,” which led to an assignment to research a film about juveniles sentenced to life in prison for the murder of the son of a Los Angeles police officer in Agoura Hills, which stirred Budnick’s interest in young offenders.

In Los Angeles after college, he found himself “in the same bubble where everyone in my business is stuck, going to the same bars and the same restaurants, and thinking it’s the real world.”

In 2003, a friend invited him to tag along as a volunteer at a writer’s workshop at the juvenile lock-up in Sylmar. He gained wealth when “The Hangover” became a huge success in 2009. But he never stopped going back behind bars, where he and nonprofits he helps fund organize classes and encourage young offenders to better themselves.

One of his regular stops is San Quentin, where he visits a group Quezada helps lead for offenders who committed terrible crimes as teenagers. Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit group that was SB 260’s main sponsor, singled out Quezada as an inmate who could get a parole date as a result of SB 260.

Quezada has done time at Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, High Desert in Susanville, Pleasant Valley in Coalinga, and since 2011, San Quentin. He sat at a table in a trailer at San Quentin one afternoon last week with a few other prisoners and told me his story.

His hair was trimmed and his teeth were strikingly straight and white. He carried a copy of Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot,” borrowed from the San Quentin library. I asked him what he was thinking when he fired on Reyes. He said he was frightened; bullets were flying.

“I didn’t think,” Quezada said. “I didn’t know the totality of my actions, on myself, on my family, on the victim, the victim’s family. I didn’t know.”

Budnick believes young inmates have two choices. They can align themselves with convicts who deal drugs and stab other inmates, or they can work to get an education, maybe find religion.

“You have to decide to stop doing harm,” Quezada said.

Quezada got his GED and a community college degree. He works as a teacher’s aide in class, and volunteers by showing troubled kids the reality of prison life – the cramped cells and the indignity of strip searches and having to shower with a bunch of other men.

“Once you’re here,” he tells them, “it can be too late.”

Quezada was the sort of kid then-Gov. Pete Wilson had in mind in the 1990s when he campaigned to get tough on youth gangs. In 2000, Wilson sponsored Proposition 21, authorizing courts to send miscreants as young as 14 to adult prisons, and implicitly rejecting the notion that juveniles could be rehabilitated.

Gray Davis, who was governor in 2000, readily endorsed Proposition 21 – no matter that it would add hundreds of millions to the cost of prisons. “We'll do what we have to do,” his press secretary was quoted as saying. “Times have changed. Some kids out there now are competing for firepower.” It was an easy sale. More than 62 percent of the electorate approved the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act.

As a result of that and other sentencing laws, California’s prison population exploded to more than 170,000 in the middle part of the last decade. That led federal courts to intervene by concluding that conditions had become so bad that the state needed to reduce crowding.

Struggling to comply with that order, Brown filed a brief on Monday pleading for a delay. He cited several steps he has taken to alleviate bad conditions, one of which was his decision to sign SB 260. The bill, the brief notes, directs parole boards to “give great weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles and to consider evidence of their maturity and rehabilitation in prison.”

The criminal justice pendulum is swinging for many reasons. Courts have concluded that California cannot constitutionally care for the number of inmates it once housed. Lawmakers and Brown have concluded that the state cannot afford the billions it spends on prisons.

Then there is the concept that drives Budnick, the old notion that at least some teenagers can change as they become adults, and that redemption is possible. Some day, perhaps Quezada will get a chance to prove it.