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Criminal Justice

Five Months Out Of Prison, An LA Parolee Wonders 'If Life's Going To Run Over Me’

José Norrington sits at a desk facing the camera in the offices of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. He's working a suit and tie with a vest. Two people can be seen in the background, and at the rear of the room the word "freedom" can be seen on the wall.
José Norrington in the offices of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.
(Al Kamalizad
/
For LAist)
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Last fall, an L.A. deputy district attorney argued before a parole board that José Norrington was too dangerous to release from prison, claiming he had a “callous disregard for human life.”

The board saw Norrington differently, concluding he had gained insight into his crime, was remorseful, and participated in a range of rehabilitation programs behind bars.

So Norrington, 37, walked out of Avenal State Prison in February after serving 15 years for attempted murder.

His case is notable. Norrington was one of the last prisoners to go before a parole board hearing attended by an L.A. prosecutor. Under a new policy instituted by District Attorney George Gascón, his deputies are prohibited from going to hearings and they must support parole for everyone except those considered at high risk of committing a new violent crime.

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Gascón argues L.A. prosecutors have too often fought to keep people locked up in the face of evidence that they’ve turned their lives around. He maintains the decision to release someone is best left to the parole board, which has access to a person’s complete prison record.

Typically, fewer than 1% of people granted parole in California commit a new violent crime. The DA’s critics worry the number will rise under Gascón’s policy.

Norrington is determined to prove the parole board made the right decision in releasing him.

‘I Didn’t Look Back’

On the day of his release, Norrington remembered something he heard often in prison as he walked away from the prison gates.

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“People said, ‘If you look back, you’re coming back,’” Norrington told us. “I didn’t look back.”

José Norrington is seen in the reflection of a window as he looks out at the LA downtown skyline, which can be seen in the distance. He's wearing a vest over a white shirt and a paisley tie, and glasses.
(Al Kamalizad
/
For LAist)

In the parking lot, he was met by a driver from the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) — a group he had reached out to that helps people coming out of prison.

“He goes, ‘You want to drive? You don’t want to do the street racing thing?’” Norrington recalled with a laugh.

Norrington led a street racing crew in El Sereno when he was convicted of trying to kill someone from a rival car crew. He didn’t pull the trigger, but he was the driver.

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At first, he was resentful that the shooter was never arrested. “The first few years, I did feel, ‘What about them, what about them?’” he said.

Then he would stop and remind himself that he made the crime possible.

Norrington was 22 years old at the time. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. But under California’s youthful offender law, he was eligible for parole 15 years after his incarceration.

The law was enacted because science has found that parts of the brain involving behavior control are developing until age 26.

‘I’m Just Asking Myself, Do They Know?’

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Norrington has leaned heavily on the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which was founded by Hollywood producer Scott Budnick. ARC says it’s currently in contact with 10,000 incarcerated people; its services to them include a quarterly newsletter and correspondence programs.

Norrington got a part-time job at ARC answering phones and moved into the nonprofit’s transitional housing. He also attends weekly classes; one teaches financial skills, another how to break addictions — including to criminal life.

A lot of the support comes from other formerly incarcerated people, who are referred to as members of ARC. They’ve been enormously helpful, Norrington said. “They understand — they’ve been there and done that.”

They understand — they've been there and done that.
— José Norrington

In a way, people who’ve been to prison have been rejected by society. “ARC provides acceptance,” he said, and smiled. “I’m slowly falling in love with them.”

For our conversation at ARC, Norrington dressed in slacks, a dress shirt, vest, and tie. He sported a short beard, mustache and eyeglasses. At one point, he took a call from someone about to be released from Valley State Prison in Chowchilla looking for a ride home.

José Norrington, wearing glasses, white sneakers, khaki pants and a white t-shirt with long blue sleeves, sits on a boulder looking at the camera at L.A.'s Vista Hermosa Natural Park. There is another boulder in the foreground, and trees, grass and shrubbery in the background.
José Norrington at Vista Hermosa Natural Park.
(Al Kamalizad
/
For LAist)

“We will bring you back to a welcoming community and family,” Norrington told the caller.

ARC has become like a second family, he said.

The group has helped him get an ID, sign up for Medi-Cal, and obtain a smartphone — something that didn’t exist when he was locked up in 2006. He remembers sales reps trying to explain micro-USBs, lightning ports, and 5G to him.

“They’re speaking French to me and I don’t speak French,” Norrington said. “I speak 15 years ago.”

He often wonders whether people can tell that he was in prison.

“I’m just asking myself, do they know, do they, do they know where I’m coming from?” he said.

Struggling To Reconnect With His Daughter

Norrington has renewed a close relationship with his parents since getting out of prison.

He talks with his father about three times a week. He and his parents pooled their latest stimulus checks to buy Norrington a 2006 Nissan Altima. It’s a far cry from the souped-up Hondas he once raced, but he’s grateful.

Things have been more challenging with Norrington’s daughter, said his life coach, Taylor Quinn.

“When I first met him, he had this grand picture of how it was going to be with his daughter,” Quinn told us. “He remembered the little girl that would run into his arms.”

Norrington’s daughter was 4 years old when he went to prison. About three times a year for nearly a decade, she visited him. When she was 13, she stopped going. She’s 19 now, and Norrington said their conversations are difficult.

Her words are hard for him to hear: “You left us. You walked out on me,” he recounted her saying. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

They text almost every day. They went out to dinner for Father’s Day. But that’s been about it, Norrington said.

“I exist. That’s all I’m trying to let her know. I’m not the guy in the picture or the letter,” he said, his eyes tearing up.

“That feeling of acceptance, I haven’t had that yet,” Norrington said.

José Norrington stands in a clearing of grass in L.A.'s Vista Hermosa Natural Park. He is wearing white sneakers, glasses, dark pants, and a white t-shirt with long blue sleeves.  The grass he is standing on is in the sun; everything else in the picture is in shadow. There are three trees to his left, and more trees in the distance. In the foreground two people can be seen. In the distance two people are talking a small white dog.
José Norrington at Vista Hermosta Natural Park.
(Al Kamalizad
/
For LAist)

‘I Wonder If Life’s Going To Run Over Me’

About 10 years into his prison sentence, Norrington joined a church. His minister’s guidance has helped him cope. He credits his faith with helping turn his life around.

Not too long ago, Norrington was depressed and Googled ‘a quiet place with a view.’

He ended up at Vista Hermosa Natural Park near downtown L.A.

Norrington goes there and to other places around the city with a view to appreciate his new freedom.

“I try to imagine a future where I moved on, where I made it, where I’m safe,” Norringtion said as he looked out at the city.

I try to imagine a future where I moved on, where I made it, where I’m safe.
— José Norrington

Asked if he has doubts whether he’ll make it on the outside after a decade and a half in prison, he answered, “I do. I wonder if life’s going to run over me.”

He’ll soon start a full-time welding job — a skill he learned in prison through the California Prison Industry Authority.

He likes the colors of the sparks, and using fire to create things.

It’s all part of Norrington’s effort to create a new life for himself.

What questions do you have about criminal justice and public safety in Southern California?
Frank Stoltze covers a new movement for criminal justice reform at a time when not everybody shares the same vision.