Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Hollywood Executive Produces More than Comedies

Producer Scott Budnick changes the lives of hundreds of troubled youth
By Dana Toyama, Information Officer I

In 1996, Scott Budnick was an intern in Los Angeles whose passion for troubled youth was about to get a big push in an altruistic direction. After reading a Rolling Stones article about the murder of a Los Angeles Police Department officer’s son, and the resulting trial of six teenagers, Budnick grew interested in the criminal justice system and its treatment of juveniles.

For the past 10 years Scott Budnick, now a Hollywood producer, has volunteered his time to give opportunity and choice to hundreds of troubled youth. Many of these youth have traded a seemingly hopeless path of crime that landed them in the criminal justice system for a path of opportunity.

In 2002 Budnick was introduced to a program called InsideOUT Writers, which conducts weekly writing classes within the Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall System.  The classes -- taught by writers, poets, screenwriters, journalists and educators -- give students the opportunity to tell their stories, reflect on the past, and decide how they will write the next chapter in their lives.

From InsideOUT, to outside in

After volunteering with the InsideOUT program for several years, Budnick turned his attention to young adults in the state prison system.  He noticed that young adults moving from the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) to one of the 33 adult institutions were not classified any differently than hardened career criminals. In 2008, Budnick approached CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan with the argument that the system was turning kids into worse criminals and it was time to try something new.

Budnick, along with Undersecretary Kernan and Tanya Rothchild of the Classification Services Unit, developed a pilot for the Youth Offender Classification Program at California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino.  The program created a system that classified youth entering the adult prison system based on behavior, wants and needs rather than by age and offense. 

The program was a success, with hundreds of young adults enrolled in college courses at several CDCR adult institutions in Southern California. The programs included mentoring and a college-dormitory environment more conducive to learning than a typical prison environment.

Due to CDCR’s inmate population reduction, CIM’s East Facility was converted from a reception yard to a Level III Sensitive Needs Yard (SNY) that includes inmates who have denounced gang affiliation and want to turn their lives around.  Budnick and CDCR officials envisioned the conversion as the perfect spot for a special program in which all of the inmates are enrolled in college courses.  Within a month of the conversion and the program start-up, there were 225 inmates enrolled in college courses.

To enhance the program further, Budnick contacted Professor Renford Reese of the political science department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.  Reese engaged students at Cal Poly Pomona campus and now has about 80 students coming into the CIM yard on a weekly basis for tutoring, mentoring, life-skills presentations, presentations about their majors and inter-disciplinary studies.

Dealing with a different kind of inmate, a better kind of inmate

Budnick’s innovative and unique ideas, along with his nose-to-the-grindstone tenacity, helped initiate a new approach within CDCR.  He helped create relationships with local resources and even helped change the dynamic between CDCR and its own inmates.  His ideas and commitment have helped create a different kind of inmate by offering a better path for young adults who may have felt were destined for lives shuttling in and out of prison.

Budnick’s dedication has changed the lives of hundreds of young adults with some attending Loyola Marymount University, Morehouse College in Atlanta, and University California, Los Angeles, after their incarceration. He’s even taken a few with him on his movie sets for “The Hangover,” “Due Date,” and “The Hangover II.”

Asked what he envisions for the future of rehabilitation, Budnick said:

“Cal Poly Pomona has already offered to put cameras in some of their classrooms and let the lectures stream live into CIM, with prisoners watching the lecture in real-time.  This is where we need to go, and it will take someone being very innovative to get us there.”