Law professor Heidi Rummel fights to give thousands of men and women a second chance—many of them sentenced decades ago to life-terms for crimes committed as youths.
As co-director of the University of Southern California’s Post-Conviction Justice Project (PCJP), Rummel teaches and leads a team of certified law student interns. They represent incarcerated clients in courtrooms and parole boards throughout California.
“I fell in love with the work,” said Rummel. “I first started working with women at CIW [California Institute for Women] back when no one was going home.
“We’d take these women to the parole board and hear their stories, and I could see for myself that they were just amazing human beings—truly amazing people.
That’s when Rummel started to realize the systemic hurdles she was up against statewide. The legal battles weren’t simply case by case—there was fierce legislative advocacy work that needed to get done.
“You can’t just keep denying people parole forever—based on their crime,” she said. “That’s essentially LWOP [life without the possibility of parole].”
Together with Elizabeth Calvin of Human Rights Watch, Rummel committed herself to “heavy policy work.”
They came and sat side by side with KidCAT members for the first time at a San Quentin symposium in 2012.
Original KidCAT member Nou Phang Thao remembers the impact Rummel made.
“Heidi’s an exceptional person,” he said. “I’ll never forget hearing her say she believes every child who commits a crime—any crime—deserves a second chance.
“That meant so much to me—to know there was someone out there who believes in us, even before we learn to believe in ourselves.”
Calvin and Rummel spent hours listening to the stories of youth offenders, who, at the time, faced little hope of ever getting released.
Since then, PCJP has co-sponsored or authored almost every juvenile justice reform bill in California.
Thanks to Senate Bill 9, SB 260, SB 261 and SB 394, youth offenders sentenced to LWOP and life-term sentences are now allowed the chance to appear before the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) after serving 24 years.
“These laws recognize that young adults should be treated differently,” said Rummel.
When Rummel spoke to KidCAT about her experience as a parole attorney for PCJP, the guys half-joked with her that she should represent their fellow member, Gary Scott, who was approaching his first BPH.
“She took down his information and promised us she’d do it,” said Thao. With Rummel’s guidance and support, Scott was found suitable for parole later that year.
PCJP’s co-director Michael Brennan currently oversees students working to get Thao successfully through his own BPH difficulties.
“The best piece of advice Heidi gave us was ‘Do not buy a cell phone,’” said Thao. “Man, later I had to write her a letter apologizing for getting caught with one.”
Rummel holds workshops at prisons all over California to help youth offenders who never believed they’d be offered any legitimate chance at freedom prepare for their BPH.
Because they thought they’d be locked up for the rest of their lives, many of these youth offenders spent much of their incarceration not caring at all about positive programming or rehabilitation.
“They never thought about parole,” said Rummel. “At the higher security prisons, they simply had no access or exposure to anything but violence, gang activity and substance abuse.”
Rummel mentioned one of her clients, Ruben Ruiz. Involved in gang activity from the age of 13, Ruiz entered the prison system with LWOP for a murder committed when he was 17.
Despite his record of violence and illegal behavior behind bars, Ruiz became eligible for parole and earned his release—with Rummel’s help—in 2017.
And after 25 years of incarceration, Ruiz became one of the men who returns to prison with the PCJP workshops.
“These guys need to share their experiences with each other,” Rummel explained. “We bring them together in our workshops so they can open up and see their own vulnerability.”
Bringing formerly incarcerated LWOP and life-term youth offenders face-to-face with their currently incarcerated peers might be the most powerful component of the workshops.
“It’s amazing when they see someone who survived the process and was able to go home,” she said. “They can’t believe this is true until they meet one in person.”
One incarcerated participant met Ruiz and called him a “unicorn”—something people talk about and hear stories about, but never see. Rummel brings these unicorns into prisons to show the real possibility of second chances.
“She’s one of those unsung heroes who does so many things that impact so many other people,” said Anthony Ammons, a KidCAT member and one of Rummel’s PCJP clients at San Quentin.
Sentenced to 102 years-to-life for crimes committed when he was 16, Ammons had his sentence commuted by then Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018 and appeared before a BPH panel in 2019.
Rummel visited Ammons several times to prepare him for the board’s scrutiny.
“She gave me the confidence to start believing in myself,” said Ammons. “Just having her tell me that she believed in me—that helped a lot.”
But when Ammon did face the BPH, they issued him a three-year denial.
“Heidi was so angry when she heard the decision,” he said. “I think she was even angrier than I was at the time.
“That made it a whole lot easier for me to feel okay with what happened.”
Rummel wants all her clients—and, really, anyone going before the BPH—to have a firm grasp on what they’ll be required to speak on.
“There are three questions you need to answer—simple questions with really difficult answers,” she said. “What did you do? Why did you do it? And how have you changed?”
In the workshops and one-on-one visiting sessions, Rummel and her team encourage the deep introspection necessary to achieve full accountability and honesty.
“Fully own your part and understand your crime,” she said. “What was the impact? What was the harm? The board already knows, more or less, what you did.
“They’re trying to figure out, ‘Are you going to do it again?’ There’s always the assumption—right or wrong—that if you don’t know why you did it, you’ll most likely do it again.”
Rummel says it’s ultimately about understanding the choices one made and being able to take responsibility for those choices.
“What happened while they were growing up?” she continued. “Why did they have a gun, join a gang? Was there some underlying shame that led them to commit their crime?”
When Rummel sits down with her clients to prepare them for the board, she never lets them skirt around these issues.
“She made me see my crime and really myself from a clearer perspective. Now I understand why I did what I did,” said Ammons. “I can connect all the pieces that contributed to my thought process at the time, my belief systems.
“Having the eyes of an ex-prosecutor, Heidi catches everything—and calls you on it. Nothing slips past her.”
Rummel chuckled at what she called her “deep dark secret.”
“I was a federal prosecutor for the first half of my career,” she said. “And, I felt good about my work as a district attorney. We prosecuted a lot of hate crimes and police misconduct.”Rummel spoke fondly of her time working with Eric Holder in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“At the beginning under [President] Clinton, we were taking over a very Republican office,” she said. “Holder always told us, ‘If you don’t think it’s just, go to the next level. Go to me.’
“I’m not going to say I did it perfectly, of course. But, I like to say we were fighting for justice.”
Calvin and Russell recently went to Sacramento to voice their opinions at an Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing on Jan. 14.
Two proposed bills, AB 665 and AB 1641, aimed to bring back LWOP sentencing for juveniles and demolish the Youth Offender Parole process.
“The committee voted them down, so those bills are dead,” said Rummel. “Last year, it didn’t even reach a committee vote.
“But there’s a lot of interest in Sacramento right now to roll back the gains we have made.”