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With the death of former State Senator John Vasconcellos on May 29, the California criminal justice reform community lost one of its great champions. Vasco, as he was affectionately known, was one of those rare elected officials whose commitment to justice never wavered. 

(flicker/​jo ito)

First elected to the state assembly in 1966, he rose through the ranks of the Legislature to become chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. From this position, he exerted a powerful influence on state policy by often standing up to the state’s most powerful interest groups and frequently stopping harmful laws. Nowhere was this more evident than during the darkest days of the California prison boom, when few politicians dared stand in the way of the prison lobby. With the passage of hundreds of harsher sentencing laws, the prison population increased eight-fold and 21 new prisons were constructed.

In the face of this onslaught, Vasco remained steadfast and the prison industry’s biggest adversary. In one instance, the prison guards union, under its former leader Don Novey, spent $300,000 to defeat him — but failed.

Rather than capitulate, Vasco challenged the prevailing politics and argued for reducing the prison population through sensible sentencing reform and expansion of non-prison alternatives. In 1992, he managed to pass the first community corrections act despite vehement opposition. His skillful use of the legislative process allowed him to cobble together sufficient votes to pass the legislation.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Vasco remained the voice of reason on sentencing policy and continued to warn about the disastrous path the state was following and its long term fiscal and legal consequences. In May 2009 he was vindicated, when the United State Supreme Court admonished California for its inhumane prison system and ordered the state to reduce it prison population.

While he may be best remembered for his promotion of self-esteem, Vasco’s greatest legacy was his moral leadership and commitment to a sane and humane criminal justice system. We will miss him.