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Ex-Gang Member Turned USF Grad Student on the Forefront of Fight to Reduce Prison Overcrowding

Luis Aroche logo

Luis Aroche MPA '15 is changing the way California and the nation thinks about criminal sentences.

It’s graduation season, and a new class of USF students will soon launch careers in law, science, nonprofits, business, and more. Almost all of them want to change the world; some already have. 

This month, we’re celebrating the pioneers who are leading and succeeding with stories about USF students, alumni, and faculty committed to making a difference.

We know we’ve only scratched the surface. Tell us how you and your fellow Dons are leading and succeeding on social media. Tag it #USFCA, and we might feature you.

Luis Aroche MPA ’15 is on the frontlines of the fight to reduce California’s overcrowded prisons, now at about 144 percent of capacity.

In just two years, he’s reduced by 7 to 10 percent the number of felony offenders who committed another crime and were re-convicted. That means diverting 14 to 20 in his 200-docket caseload to alternative sentencing and rehabilitation programs.

The L.A. Times knows Luis

The 35-year-old graduate student is in a unique position — one that was created to change California’s, and possibly the country’s, approach to criminal sentencing. No wonder his work's been covered by major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times.  

Aroche works for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, where he reviews offenders’ files to determine their chances for rehabilitation. He asks questions; lots of questions: Do they have children who are dependent on them? Are they married, and do they have a supportive family? Are they willing to move away from their old neighborhood and those they’ve run with in the past?

No other prosecutor’s office in the country has an equivalent position or goes to such lengths to dig into offenders’ history of family abuse, upbringing, and education. That was work left to defense teams, until Aroche was put in charge of a groundbreaking test initiative under District Attorney George Gascón to bring down San Francisco’s 76 percent recidivism rate.

Making the most of a second chance

With California under a federal court order to reduce its prison population to 90,000 from more then 130,000 in the next two years, Gascón has Aroche recommending alternative sentences for hundreds.

He’s recommended drug rehab for a 23-year old fraudulent check writer. For a meth addict and prostitute who repeatedly burglarized her family members’ homes, he recommended detoxing in jail, followed by a two-year stint in a 24-hour rehabilitation facility, plus counseling.

“It’s called the Second Chance Program,” said Aroche, a student in USF’s Master’s of Public Administration Program in the School of Management. Appropriate, considering he is a prime example of how a former gang member can turn his life around given the right opportunity. It wasn’t long ago that authorities knew Aroche has a juvenile delinquent with strong ties to San Francisco Mission District gangs.

He's been where they are

By age 12 he was skipping school, drinking beer, and hanging with gang members. He ended up in the hospital after a fight in which he was beaten with a crowbar and stabbed in the stomach by a rival gang member. At 16, he was arrested for assaulting a biker and trying to steal his bike.

Aroche spent two years in a juvenile detention camp. There, he learned his older brother had been sentenced to life in prison for a double murder. Two other brothers were also incarcerated and more than one cousin was killed on the streets. He decided that wasn’t the road he wanted to take, so Aroche told his juvenile probation officer he wanted a job when he was released.

“I represent the other side of the Latino community. Not the middle class or those fortunate enough to get a better education, but a Latino who came from the bottom and knows how to go up,” said Aroche, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of Integral Studies and worked as a social worker helping at-risk kids before enrolling at USF.

Focused on reaching others

Aroche’s convinced that the more felons Second Chance reaches the more will be kept out of prison, and he’s got the numbers to prove it. That’s why he’s recommending that Gascón add two more caseworkers next year.

“That’s part of what makes Luis very special for us,” Gascón said. “When he’s talking to a prosecutor about a kid that deserves a second opportunity … he’s looking at it clinically, as someone who has been involved in intervention, but he’s also looking at it as someone who was there himself.” 

by Ed Carpenter | Office of Communications and Marketing »email usfnews@usfca.edu | Twitter @usfcanews