Film producer and social justice activist Scott Budnick kicked it with youth offenders and spoke to Kid-CAT members about his efforts to put the human face on America’s broken criminal justice system.
“This is my favorite group in the whole state,” said the famed producer of The Hangover and the recently released Just Mercy. “It’s good to be back here.”
“I’ve been coming to Kid-CAT for years,” Budnick said as he looked around at about 30 prisoners in SQ Education’s B-Building. “I literally don’t recognize anyone—only a couple of faces.
“It’s nuts. Everyone in KidCAT’s going home.”
Budnick came that day with longtime SQ volunteer Ayoola Mitchell to speak with and meet youth offenders who may have heard of him but have never seen him face-to-face.
New KidCAT member Rafael Bravo, 28, introduced Budnick to the room.
“People say, ‘Who the hell is Scott?’ Well, I’ve known him since I was 16,” said Bravo. “If anyone in the world believed in me, it’s this man right here.
“He appeared one day when I was in YA [Youth Authority]. ‘Are you Rafael? Your cousin told me to come find you.’”
Bravo told everyone how Budnick eventually got him a job on a movie set.
“He offered me the best of opportunities I could possibly have,” said Bravo. “But I wasn’t right.”
Bravo ended up committing second degree murder and being sentenced to 16-years-to-life.
“While we’re incarcerated, this is the time to get right with ourselves right now,” said Bravo. “We have to be there for each other and lift each other up.”
Budnick then explained to the guys about his experiences seeing the inequities of the criminal justice system firsthand.
“When I was working on Old School, a friend of mine took me with him to Juvenile Hall. We volunteered for Inside Out Writers, working with a group of 10 kids—all facing life sentences.”
Budnick recalled asking one of the young men how their week had been. “‘It was a bad week,’ the kid told me. He said he’d just got sentenced to 300-years-to-life. ‘They stacked everything—I got washed.’
“And, this kid looked like he was 11. I thought, ‘Oh, they’ll have a good time with him in prison. This is awful.’”
That was one moment Budnick says changed his perspective, changed his life. “How do I live in a country that would do this to a child?
“I could not comprehend in my mind how we, as a country, think this is okay. Our system’s so incredibly racist and unfair. There’s like no White kids in Juve- nile Hall.”
Budnick related it to his own children. “My kid would get bailed out, have the best attorney money can buy and get a deal no one could have gotten.
“If you have money, you’re not going to get washed. I couldn’t just teach a writing class and feel like I’m giving back.”
Budnick went on to found the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) in 2013, an organization committed to offering guidance and help to the incarcerated and recently released, as well as advocating fiercely to affect policy change.
“Getting laws passed, we’re 4 for 4 so far, with Governor Newsom,” Bud- nick said. “And, I think we were like 13 for 13 with Governor Brown.
“Our policy work through ARC, that’s all done by you guys—because you guys are up there on Capitol Hill telling your stories.”
Budnick talked about how the lessons he’s learned as a filmmaker tie into affecting social change.
“Conflict, struggle, a happy ending — that’s what makes a great story, a great film,” he said. “And you guys have some of the most powerful stories on earth.
“No matter who I bring into prison, everyone changes when they meet you guys and see you as human beings.”
According to Budnick, it’s all about being able to humanize the incarcerated through storytelling.
“There’s such a beautiful light inside all of you,” he said. “That’s the lesson. Talking about you guys as human beings got voters to say ‘Yes.’
“The criminal justice system’s all about scare tactics. Think about that — we just need to make sure juries aren’t scared, right?”
Budnick is intent on using his Hollywood platform and success to illuminate the human faces stuck behind the walls of mass incarceration.
With Black Panther and Creed star Michael B. Jordan, Budnick produced Just Mercy, the film version of Bryan Stevenson’s nonfiction account of freeing Walter McMillian, a wrongfully convicted prisoner on Alabama’s Death Row.
McMillian spent years on Death Row due to a conviction based solely on the testimony of a jailhouse informant. And although his jury sentenced him to life, the trial judge intervened and ordered a death sentence.
Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to fight for people like Mc- Millian.
“The entire movie is about humanizing all the people on Death Row,” said Budnick. “There’s a pretty graphic execution scene in there, where we show it all.
“By the time the audience gets to that point in the film, we know the guy’s guilty — but they all cry when he’s put to death.”
In conjunction with Just Mercy’s January release dates, Budnick explained how he and Warner Bros. partnered to launch Represent Justice, “the largest political social impact campaign for a movie — ever.”
“We’re using our social media to send people to websites on criminal justice reform,” he said. “They’ll be able to see Juvenile Hall information where they can go volunteer.
“We want to try and immediately activate people—engage them to get in- volved.”
Budnick also expressed his excitement for Play For Justice, where the Sacramento Kings, Milwaukee Bucks and other NBA partners are visiting prisons to interact with incarcerated communities, bringing them basketball — and hope.
“I’m driving from here straight to Folsom,” he told the SQ guys. “Some people might think basketball fans don’t know anything about criminal justice — we’re go- ing to change all that.”
Ayoola Mitchell spoke about how she first crossed paths with Budnick. “I met Scott four years ago, when we both were speaking before the Legislature in Sacramento.”
“It really struck me, because, you know, I was dressed all in my adult clothes,” said Mitchell. “But him—I swear he had flip flops on and was there to address public officials just like I was.
“Something Scott said that day really resonated with me. He said, ‘I just don’t give a f–k.’ Me, as a Black woman—how I look matters. When I go in there, I know I’ll be judged.”
Budnick chuckled slightly. “Everyone already sees me as ‘the Hangover guy,’ so I can get away with it.”
Mitchell continued. “A few years later, I was visiting the ARC offices in Los An- geles. It’s all about that six degrees of separation—the way people’s live intersect.
“There was a guy who’d gotten out and was working for Scott, a guy I’d known since he was 16 in Juvenile Hall,” she said. “He told me he was going to the Oscars that year.
“I’m like, ‘I’ve never been to the Oscars. What about me?’”
Mitchell’s career in criminal justice reform spans more than 38 years, and running. “I’ve been fighting for y’all before some of you were even born,” she said. “So much needs to be done out there.
“I have such a heart for you guys.”
Budnick asked Mitchell what organizations she works for. “It’s just me—Ayoola. No non-profit. No organization,” she said. “I’ve always believed in redemption.
“I’m old as Hell, but I can’t retire until all y’all are free.” Budnick commended Mitchell for her continued effort and passion, particularly since she does it mostly on her own without all the fundraising and support networks he has access to. “It’s easy for me to do this work,” he said.
Some of the SQ guys had questions about what kind of reentry support ARC provides once they’re released.
“We got you,” said Budnick. “You’ll have a very stable place to live and people around you who care. If that keeps you up at night or gives you pause, don’t worry about it.”
A big question was about getting Budnick involved in spreading KidCAT’s First Step curriculum to other facilities.
“The model that was started here—that should be at High Desert, at these hopeless places,” he said. “There’s what, like 35 prisons in California?
“Your program should be available at all of them— anywhere there’s youth offenders looking for hope.”