SCOTT BUDNICK: FROM PRODUCING THE HANGOVER MOVIES TO FOUNDING THE ANTI-RECIDIVISM COALITION
Jesse Katz has an excellent longread profile for the California Sunday Magazine on Scott Budnick and his journey from pre-med student to Hollywood producer to full-time criminal justice reform champion.
Budnick began mentoring kids in Sylmar’s juvenile detention center more than a decade ago through the Inside Out Writers program.
Budnick, executive producer of the Hangover series, left Hollywood behind in 2013 in order to take on criminal justice activism full-time. Budnick says he has Dede Gardner, producer of 12 Years a Slave, to thank for his decision.
After the split, Budnick founded the Anti-Recidivism Coalition with a $400,000 grant from California Endowment. While ARC was in its earliest stages, Budnick was instrumental in pushing SB 260 (a law that gave a second chance at parole to kids who were convicted of murder before the age of 18 and sentenced to life-without-parole) through legislature and into Governor Jerry Brown’s hands. Budnick also used ARC as a platform to campaign for the passage of Proposition 47 in 2014.
Here are some clips from Katz’s profile:
If Budnick were a priest or a lawyer, even a counselor or a coach, these jailhouse pilgrimages would be easier to explain — his declarations not so incongruous. But until a bit more than a year ago, Budnick had a day job as a Hollywood producer, and not one devoted to bringing socially conscious, inspirational tales to the screen. As the number two at Green Hat Films, Budnick executive-produced the raunchy, uproarious Hangover movies, the top-grossing R-rated comedy franchise in history. For years it meant living a kind of double life, racing from the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank to Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, interrupting conference calls to accept collect calls, burning through girlfriends once they realized he would rather be, as his official bio says, “walking the tiers of California jails and prisons on his nights and weekends” than a red carpet.
“These kids,” Budnick says, “are what give me life.”
At once earnest and hyperbolic, loyal and schmoozy, Budnick can come across as a character in one of his own films. When people first meet him, whether it be an inmate or a warden, a politician or a philanthropist, the initial reaction is almost always the same: “Who the fuck are you and what are you about?” his longtime mentor, Javier Stauring, who oversees the L.A. Archdiocese’s youth-detention ministry, says with a laugh. Budnick is not the likeliest crusader, in other words, to be redefining how California punishes and redeems.
The break was unlikely, though, only if you did not know Budnick and his growing distaste for a business rife, he says, with “ego and selfishness and people that make every decision out of fear.” It was no coincidence, either, that he took his leave the same year that both The Hangover Part III and 12 Years a Slave hit theaters, the fierce moral compass of one making the other look even more aimless. After a day of guiding Dede Gardner, one of 12 Years’s Oscar-winning producers, around juvenile hall, Budnick credits her as the person “who changed my life, who made the movie that kicked me out of the business.”
Forgoing a paycheck at first and, he says, tapping much of his savings, Budnick began 2014 as a full-time activist, putting everything into the Anti-Recidivism Coalition — arc — a support and advocacy nonprofit he had begun in his garage. arc now has a $1.2 million budget, a paid staff of six, and an office in the downtown L.A. building that houses the rooftop lounge Perch. Instead of clients, arc has what Budnick calls “members” — 160 formerly incarcerated men and women, murderers and carjackers and tweakers — nearly all of whom he met and mentored while they were locked up.
“He is kind of an oddity,” says Robert Downey Jr., the onetime recidivist turned world’s highest-paid actor, who serves on arc’s board of directors. “In politics, usually, you try to align yourself with things that make you look as good as possible and disconnect with anything that’s the least bit tainted.”
Befitting a veteran of broad commercial entertainment, Budnick has chosen his moment shrewdly. After decades of throw-away-the-key policies, the nation is again considering the philosophy of second chances. With a growing number of conservatives daunted by the cost of mass incarceration, libertarians dismayed by the broad license to police that drug laws give the government, evangelicals committed to the promise of personal transformation, and the most crime-ravaged communities also the most crippled by tough-on-crime tactics, the movement defies easy labels.
California, a pioneer of three-strike sentencing laws, is now at a different forefront. In recent years, through ballot initiatives and legislative measures, the state has given breaks once unthinkable to thousands of felons: parole dates, sentence reductions, educational alternatives, employment opportunities. Budnick, campaigner and noodge, has had a hand in it all.
“When I first heard about him, I have to be honest with you: A white Hollywood guy? He can’t be real,” says Robert K. Ross, president and ceo of the California Endowment, the state’s largest health foundation. Then Budnick invited him to visit Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A., where Ross was so moved by Budnick’s rapport with the inmates, he helped launch arc with a $400,000 grant. “Scott Budnick,” Ross says, “is the most extraordinary force in the state of California on badly needed incarceration and justice reform.”
In the long run, Budnick dreams of removing every young person, 18 to 25, from the adult prison system and placing them on a campus with educational and therapeutic programs. He has been sketching plans for what he calls the California Leadership Academy for more than a decade — a Warner Bros. set designer helped with the earliest diagrams — and since his recent appointments to both the California Community Colleges Board of Governors and the Board of State and Community Corrections, he now has more platforms for making it happen. While still years away, the project just received an $865,000 endorsement in Governor Brown’s budget. This sweeping proposal, with all of its promise and uncertainty, is not rooted in an especially religious perspective, nor is it particularly ideological. If pressed, Budnick will repeat the axiom “hurt people hurt” — and its corollary, “healed people heal.”
We’ve written about Budnick before (and, full disclosure: he is a pal of WLA’s).
THE DEATH OF ALEXANDRIA HILL…AND THE PROBLEM OF PRIVATIZED FOSTER CARE
In July of 2013, two-year-old Alexandria Hill was murdered by her foster mother, a woman screened and supervised by Mentor Network, a huge for-profit foster care agency.
After Alexandria’s death, Mother Jones’ Brian Joseph dove into an 18-month investigation into the world of privatized foster care.
Overloaded and understaffed child welfare departments across the US turn to private foster care companies to pick up the slack. These for-profit companies receive a bunch of tax dollars to vet potential foster families, train them, place kids in their care, and supervise them.
And there’s not much oversight.
Joseph found that very few states are even keeping a record of how many kids are in private foster care. No states are collecting data on how many kids involved in private foster care are being abused. And no one is running the numbers on the cost difference between privately-run and government-run foster care.
Here are some clips from Joseph’s investigation:
With blond hair and blue eyes, Alexandria stood 32 inches tall and weighed just 30 pounds. She liked kitties and the color purple….
At about a quarter to seven that evening, Clemon Small woke from a nap and left for a meeting at a nearby restaurant, leaving Sherill alone with Alexandria and the infant. About 15 minutes later, Sherill dialed his number, then 911.
First at the scene was Ward Roddam, the chief of the Rockdale Volunteer Fire Department, who was so surprised to find no one in the front yard waving him down that he called dispatch to make sure he had the right address. Inside, he encountered what he would describe as one of the strangest scenes in his 25-year career: Alexandria’s limp body lay on the floor while Clemon sat on the couch and Sherill talked to 911. Roddam found mucus on Alexandria’s mouth, suggesting that CPR, which foster parents are trained to administer, had never been attempted.
On the witness stand 15 months later, Roddam was asked if the Smalls seemed panicked. “‘Panic’ does not describe it at all,” he said. They seemed “very calm.”
What happened in Rockdale that night would be the subject of a weeklong trial in the fall of 2014, focusing on the care of Alexandria. But it also opened a window into the vast and opaque world of private foster care agencies—for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations that are increasingly taking on the role of monitoring the nation’s most vulnerable children. The agency involved in Small’s case was the Lone Star branch of the Mentor Network, a $1.2 billion company headquartered in Boston that specializes in finding caretakers, or “mentors,” for a range of populations, from adults with brain injuries to foster children. With 4,000 children in its care in 14 states, Mentor is one of the largest players in the business of private foster care, a fragmented industry of mostly local and regional providers that collect hundreds of millions in tax dollars annually while receiving little scrutiny from government authorities.
Squeezed by high caseloads and tight budgets, state and local child welfare agencies are increasingly leaving the task of recruiting, screening, training, and monitoring foster parents to these private agencies. In many places, this arrangement has created a troubling reality in which the government can seize your children, but then outsource the duty of keeping them safe—and duck responsibility when something goes wrong.
Nationally, no one tracks how many children are in private foster homes, or how these homes perform compared to those vetted directly by the government. As part of an 18-month investigation, I asked every state whether it at least knew how many children in its foster system had been placed in privately screened homes. Very few could tell me. For the eight states that did, the total came to at least 72,000 children in 2011. Not one of the states had a statistically valid dataset comparing costs, or rates of abuse or neglect, in privately versus publicly vetted homes.
The bottom line for private foster care agencies—whether large, for-profit corporations or small, local nonprofits—is tied to the number of foster parents on their roster, and thus their ability to place children quickly. Given that every foster parent represents potential revenue, Zullo says, an agency may be more likely to overlook sketchy personal histories or potential safety hazards. There’s little incentive, he adds, to seek out reasons to reject a family, to investigate problems after children are placed, or to do anything else that could result in a child leaving the agency’s program. And as tough as the margins are for nonprofit agencies, the perverse incentives are exacerbated at for-profit agencies that need to make money for owners or shareholders.
“What happens,” Zullo says, “is the lives of these children become commodities.”
In 2013, the California spent $308 million on private foster care. Joseph was given a glimpse inside Positive Option, a small Sacramento set-up that is in charge of 70 kids. Here’s a clip from what he found there:
Kovill, the cofounder, is an energetic 82-year-old with a white beard who continues to manage the organization on a day-to-day basis. Kovill feels a special kinship with the foster children he serves: He says he was abandoned by his father when he was about seven and given to a shoemaker as a laborer. “Foster care is a good system,” Kovill said. “I wish it had been there when I was a kid.” (Kovill told me he changed his name long ago to break from the family that abandoned him. He wouldn’t tell me what his old name was.)
Kovill told me the margins are tight in private foster care, especially if child welfare is your top priority. He said he once had to sell land he owned in Arizona to keep Positive Option, which has annual revenues of about $1.2 million, afloat. Some of his employees report taking 10 percent pay cuts several years ago for the same reason, cuts that remain in effect today. “I’m still a businessman, and I still try to stay in the black as best I can,” Kovill told me one day in the cramped office he shares with his wife, Luan, who works at the agency for free. “But if it meant a car seat for a baby, if it meant diapers for a baby, if it meant safety for a child, the bottom line is gone.”
Kovill took responsibility for Positive Option’s problems, saying they came about in part because he was distracted by the agency’s financial struggles during the recession. “I just trusted everybody to do what I do—I work hard,” Kovill said, referring to some former employees he eventually fired. “I figured they did too. Well, you can’t do that.”
WHERE DISPLACED FOSTER KIDS GO TO WAIT
The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf visited LA County’s Youth Welcome Center, the original purpose of which was to house kids new to the system while social workers placed them with foster parents or in group homes. Instead, the center, located at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, has come to serve as a sort of purgatory for hard-to-place kids, the ones who caregivers send back, like kids in their late teens, LGBTQ kids, and kids suffering from mental illness.
Here are some clips from Therolf’s story:
The center — outfitted with couches and televisions — was designed as a comfortable waiting room for children newly removed from their families; it was intended to house them for just one night while the staff tried to place them with a foster home.
Instead, the center has evolved into a holding facility for the most difficult to place youths who have been thrown out of foster homes. No one is turned away.
The facility is the last stop for some of the most desperate and extreme cases, a stark window on the difficulties of a child protection system that is burdened with maddening bureaucracy, a shortage of foster homes and crushing demands from a growing number of troubled children.
The youths who end up here are often older teenagers, sexual minorities, mentally ill or medically fragile. A significant number are involved in prostitution.
They stay here for nights, sometimes weeks, because there are so few homes willing to take them. Sometimes, the children refuse the homes offered to them and leave to live on their own. They come back sporadically to the center for a shower and a night’s rest — a respite from a life on the streets.
Two of the system’s most debilitating pressures — the desperate shortage of foster homes and the swelling ranks of foster youths involved in prostitution — have conspired here to make this a place where social workers feel as though they are on a never-ending chase to find lasting foster homes for the children.
On this night, out of nearly 30 youths, only one has just entered foster care for the first time: Ruben, a small 13-year-old boy swimming in an oversized T-shirt….
Ashley spent her days in the department’s Torrance office to be near the social worker who was assigned to find her a new home. The worker was too busy to see her, however, and each night, she returned in a van to the Youth Welcome Center, where social workers take over the search on nights and weekends.
“When are you guys going to finally take me back to school?” Ashley asked the employees at the door.
“That’s not our job here at the YWC,” the woman with the clipboard replied.
“That’s not fair,” said Ashley, who was two grades behind in school.
She hoped to become a choreographer or child psychologist. She said, “I want to get my education.”
OP-ED: GOV. JOBS PROGRAM FOR RELEASED (AND SOON TO BE RELEASED) INMATES WOULD BE MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL
Boston saw a record-breaking “snowpocalypse” in February that is on track to break an even larger record: the snowiest season in Boston’s recorded history. All that snow buried streets, train tracks, cars, and even turned Nantucket waves into slush.
In addition to union workers and the National Guard, Boston has put county jail inmates to work shoveling the city out from under the snow. The inmates provide the labor for pennies on the hour.
In an op-ed for the Atlantic, Bruce Western and Linda Forman Naval say that local municipalities, taxpayers, and inmates would be better served if the government created a reentry job program—one that pays more than $.20 per hour and employs both incarcerated and newly released inmates.
The public maintenance jobs program would give those locked-up and recently released inmates a chance to make the money necessary for successfully transitioning back into life on the outside: for food, shelter, and paying back their debts. It would also fill a need on the city and county levels by building a public maintenance workforce, and on the individual taxpayer level by targeting recidivism.
Here’s a clip from the op-ed:
A regular government jobs program for formerly-incarcerated people could play a valuable role in maintaining public areas and infrastructure while assisting the transition from the prison to the community. Such a program would also provide a readily available workforce that could respond in moments of catastrophe.
Better yet, extending the program to provide real jobs to those who are about to be released would help them build a nest-egg to transition back into society. Pay all these workers the prevailing wage, and they will be able to afford rent and other necessities for successful reentry. And set up a payment plan so that former prisoners can pay back their debts, such as fines owed to the courts, once they are back up on their feet.
Such a payment plan for fees and fines would represent a big upgrade over the usual work-release programs. Financial obligations are usually deducted from the paycheck up front, and debt can follow formerly incarcerated people around for years. This erodes their incentive to work, makes crime more tempting, and absorbs money that might otherwise procure stable housing and other basic necessities.
People who have been incarcerated—mostly minority men with low-incomes and little schooling —continue to pay a price long after they have left prison. They often enter prison with close to nothing and return to society with little money to get established after incarceration.
Compounding the problem, they also face significant barriers to finding employment upon release.
Bruce Western is a sociology professor and the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy at Harvard University, and the director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Linda Forman Naval is Deputy Director of the Scholars Strategy Network.