Thirty years for freedom: the story of a lifer

By Nancy Mullane

Governor Jerry Brown has his hands full with California’s budget deficit, but his job is about more than just economics. One of his many responsibilities has to do with criminal justice: the former attorney general will appoint up to six new members to the state parole board. It could mean a big shake-up – the board is comprised of 12 members for adult convicts, and five for juveniles. They decide whether inmates are a threat to society or if they’ve reformed. It’s a grave responsibility. Take inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. California has more than 28,000 of them locked up. And right now, when they seek parole, more than 95% are denied.

But there’s an interesting paradox, here: lifers who are paroled have the lowest recidivism rate; less than 5% of them reoffend. And because the state denies their freedom, many lifers appeal their cases to federal courts.

That’s what Noel Valdivia did. And after serving nearly 30 years for murder and attempted robbery, he was granted his freedom by a federal district judge. Before his release, KALW‘s Nancy Mullane spoke with his family.

ALICIA ENAJOSA: I’m the oldest sister, Alicia Enajosa. My brother got a release and will be coming home in 15 days. We’re so happy and grateful. We’ve been waiting for this for the longest. And we’re just overwhelmed with joy!

NOEL’S FATHER: I’ve been waiting 30 years to see my son free.

NOEL’S BROTHER: It’s going to be weird. It’s different, you know. I was happy when I heard the news. Finally get to spend time with him, you know? I’m already 26, you know, and now we’re going to be able to do stuff outside that we never got to do inside, while he was inside there.

NANCY MULLANE: What do you most want to do with him?

NOEL’S BROTHER: Play ball. Basketball. Yeah, he wants to take me to the court. I was like, “We’ll see!”

ENAJOSA: We’re going to throw a big party. We’re going to have a prayer, thank God for what he has done and just rejoice. There is so much people waiting for him. Church members, family members who weren’t able to be here today because of work. And people from Texas are coming. He got educated and he’s tried his best. He did his best to change, and I believe he deserved this chance. I mean I do, I do. I know he hurts for what he did, but I also believe that we all have to get a second chance. And I believe God has given him a second chance.

For the past six months, Noel Valdivia has lived with his family in Stockton. But, last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state courts, not the federal judiciary, are responsible for ensuring that the California parole system adheres to the law. That means only the state authorities can grant parole. So Valdivia and others released by federal courts will likely be sent back to prison.

Noel Valdivia drove from his home in Stockton to our studios in San Francisco to tell his story. He sat down with KALW’s Holly Kernan.

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