At 15 years old, Michael Mendoza sat in the backseat of a car while the front-seat passenger shot and killed someone in a gang-related murder. Mendoza was prosecuted in criminal court as if he was an adult, convicted of second degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
He first went before the parole board in 2010, where he provided evidence of his personal growth in prison and his readiness to return home. He was denied. In 2014, he received his second chance as a result of California’s Senate Bill 260, which created a separate, age-appropriate parole review process for youth sentenced to life imprisonment. Successfully appearing before this board allowed for his release in 2014.
A condition of Mendoza’s parole is a lifetime of supervision by California’s Division of Adult Parole, an agency within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Such supervision often imposes requirements that make a successful transition to life in the community difficult. For instance, Mendoza was initially required by his parole conditions to stay within a 50-mile radius of his residence, which left him unable to visit family. Yet maintaining family bonds serve as a strong protective factor against committing crime. The myriad limitations set by parole restrictions motivated Mendoza to pursue a career advocating for formerly incarcerated people.
“Being engaged with these policies just by simply sharing my own personal experiences of what it was like to grow up in incarceration as a Mexican-American kid gave me so much confidence and experience that I needed to really succeed in this world,” said Mendoza.
Today he is the National Policy Director at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) in California, where he is responsible for expanding the organization’s policy priorities. Mendoza hopes his experiences will serve as a way to help other formerly incarcerated people “continue to change the narrative” and give them the opportunity to “show that we are not ex-cons, we are not felons, we’re not inmates, we’re people that have a way to give back.” The importance of the lived experience of imprisonment in earning trust and support of newly released lifers is critical.
Mendoza’s work is just one of the ways he is providing others with the same opportunities he’s been given. He recently adopted a dog and highlights how the experience has impacted him by being able to serve as an advocate in a new way.
“[S]he’s teaching me a lot of patience, humility, love and for me, for someone like myself and the traumas that I’ve experienced, it’s been really helpful. She’s amazing. She’s smart, she’s well-behaved. And I think it’s because she did time, too. She did about a year in an animal shelter before I found her.”