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He found a calling in prison

Doing 26 months for corruption changed Pat Nolan's perspective. The former lock-'em-up legislator now crusades for penal system reform.

July 05, 2007|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

Sacramento — PAT Nolan's views on crime and punishment took root when he was 8 years old, delivering newspapers on the streets of Los Angeles. Time and again, neighborhood punks preyed on him -- stealing his bike, roughing him up and clouding his days with fear.

Two decades later, Nolan won a seat in the state Assembly, where those childhood scars drove him to fight for more prisons and tougher sentencing. Nothing, he believed, was too bad for the bad guys.

Then Nolan became one of the bad guys.

In the mid-1990s, in one of the Capitol's most notorious political corruption cases, federal authorities convicted him of racketeering and 13 others of various charges in an FBI sting known as Shrimpscam. Suddenly, the lock-'em-up Republican legislator was on the wrong side of the bars.

Nolan's 26 months in prison ended a red-hot political career but spawned a fascinating personal odyssey. Once a fiercely ambitious Assembly minority leader, considered a promising candidate for governor, he morphed into a humble, Bible-quoting ex-con who travels the country denouncing the American penal system as a failure.

Today, Nolan says most prisons are human warehouses that squander billions of tax dollars by doing nothing to guide inmates toward a productive future. The sad result -- in California, 70% of inmates are re-arrested within three years of release -- means more crime victims and fewer state dollars for schools, healthcare and other priorities, he says.

"If hospitals were failing to heal two out of three patients, would we continue to pour money into them?" Nolan asks. "Of course not. So shame on those who defend the status quo."

Nolan spreads his message as president of Justice Fellowship, an arm of Virginia-based Prison Fellowship Ministries, formed by another Republican who spent time behind bars: onetime White House aide Charles Colson of Watergate fame.

Earlier this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Nolan to a "strike team" charged with overhauling California's approach to imprisonment. The initiative follows passage of a $7.4-billion package that will add 53,000 beds to the system while boosting education, drug treatment and other services for the state's 173,000 inmates.

Nolan's personal saga fuels his message with passion and credibility. A burly 57-year-old with thick gray hair, a jowly face and bright blue eyes, he struggles with health problems, including Lyme disease and diabetes. Still, he bounces from state to state to spur new thinking on prisons and prisoners.

An author, lecturer and member of two respected national commissions on prison issues, Nolan frequently testifies before congressional committees and trumpets his cause on television talk shows. He punctuates his conversations with quotations from an eclectic array of sources, including Jesus, Shakespeare, Marcus Aurelius and the French revolutionary Robespierre.

IN early May, in a Capitol homecoming of sorts, Nolan brought his message to Sacramento. He met privately with GOP lawmakers, hoping to chip away at the tough-on-crime mentality that many of them project publicly.

"I've sat on the dais, I know the political pressures they're responding to," he said during a pause at a downtown cafe. "I tell them that when I was in the Legislature, I really thought more prisons meant more public safety. I really thought that when a criminal went through the prison gate, I didn't need to worry about him any more."

That was a mistake, Nolan says now, because 95% of all prisoners eventually return home. Then, "they're in line with me at Safeway, they're at the park with my children, they're next to me on the bus," he says. "So I'd better hope they've turned their lives around."

State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) says Nolan's dual experiences as politician and inmate make his pitch difficult to ignore.

"You can't go through what Pat experienced without being fundamentally affected," McClintock said. "It made it possible for him to humanize this issue in a very compelling way."

Nolan is not the only conservative with a changed perspective on sentencing and the treatment of inmates. The debate over punishment is shifting in America, and Republicans are doing much of the talking.

Congress is weighing the Second Chance Act, a bill aimed at helping prisoners reenter society. The legislation -- co-sponsored by 27 Republicans -- marks a reversal of policies that made life tougher for parolees by cutting college grants, barring drug felons from receiving student loans and erecting other barriers to re-integrating.

"There is so much empirical evidence now on the ills of mass incarceration that it's become almost impossible to ignore," said Michael Jacobson, director of the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice and former corrections commissioner for New York City. "People like Pat Nolan are incredibly helpful because they are listened to in conservative circles in a way the wacky, liberal criminologists are not."

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