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A cattle-ranching billionaire headed into Gov. Jerry Brown’s office last week with redemption on his mind.
Redemption for prisoners who wind up behind bars because their own tortured childhoods lead them to lives of crime. Redemption for veterans who bring home wartime scars that cause addiction and violence. And redemption, perhaps, even for himself—born into privilege, born again as a Christian, and determined to make a difference with his wealth.
“If you listen to the stories of the men and women who have been incarcerated, it’s horrible what they’ve been through,” B. Wayne Hughes Jr. said as he stood outside Brown’s office.
“And when you look at the amount of money we’re spending…we’re getting horrible results. All we’re doing is making better criminals.”
Hughes, 58, was in Sacramento to lobby for a bill he’s backing to help veterans who have committed low-level crimes. It’s a non-controversial bill with a small price tag, so his meetings in the state Capitol weren’t so much about making a hard sell. Instead, they marked one more step in his transformation from Republican real estate magnate to Libertarian advocate for criminal justice reform.
The rancher, whose father founded the Public Storage company, gave nearly $1.3 million to Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that turned nonviolent property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, allowing some prisoners to be released. He also helps fund a prison ministry and runs a ranch near Paso Robles that provides faith-based mental-health treatment for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress.
The bill that brought him from his home in Pismo Beach to the hallways of the state Capitol blends his interests in helping veterans and improving the criminal justice system. Senate Bill 339 would require the state to study the effectiveness of veterans courts, which help veterans who commit low-level crimes involving addiction or mental illness access treatment instead of sending them to jail. Almost half the counties in California have veterans courts. Hughes wants to see them expand statewide and has offered to pay $100,000 to cover half the cost of the study.
“That oughta be an easy deal,” GOP Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber said as Hughes and his lobbyist explained the bill in a visit to Nielsen’s office. The senator pledged his support for the bill, saying it holds offenders accountable while giving veterans “a fair shake in the judicial system.”
A similar bill stalled last year, but that version was carried by a Republican, making it easy for the Democratic majority to sideline without a vote. Now it’s being carried by a Democrat—Sen. Richard Roth of Riverside, who is also an Air Force veteran—and it flew out of its first committee last week with unanimous support.
A fluid approach to politics has become the norm for Hughes.
At one point, he was a big donor to the California Republican Party and supported GOP gubernatorial candidates Arnold Schwarzenegger and Meg Whitman. His lucrative donations to conservative groups helped Republicans win a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010. Last year, though, Hughes left the Republican party and gave more than $100,000 to Libertarian Gary Johnson’s campaign for president. And in recent California campaigns, he’s been as likely to write a check to a Republican as a Democrat. Hughes has donated to some of the Legislature’s most liberal Democrats and built a friendship with John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party.
“There aren’t a lot of people of his means that get involved with trying to improve the criminal justice system, and the people that care about improving it—like me—are a bunch of bleeding hearts,” said Burton, who runs a foundation for foster youth that Hughes has supported.
“He is a really decent human being and puts his money where his mouth is.”
Hughes’ interest in helping the downtrodden began when he came to Christianity some 20 years ago and evolved when he met Chuck Colson, the former Nixon administration official who pled guilty to Watergate crimes. Colson was long out of prison and running a global prison ministry when Hughes met him in 2009. They sat beside each other at a fundraiser for the ministry, and Hughes recalls being blown away by the former inmates’ stories of redemption.
“It was a life changing event,” Hughes said. “My empathy quotient went way up to the point where I decided I was going to do something.”
He started funding inmates to go through an intensive ministry, then helped expand the seminary-type program to more than two dozen prisons. After he bought a cattle ranch near Paso Robles, he learned that an average of 20 veterans commit suicide each day. So he built a lodge on his property where struggling vets could come for rehabilitation.
“I think the world of that program,” said Nathan Fletcher, a Marine Corps veteran and former legislator who visited the Hughes ranch and believes it is preventing veteran suicides.
“If just one doesn’t do it, how do you put a price tag on that?” Fletcher said. “They’ve literally put hundreds through this program.”
Lenore Anderson, a former prosecutor who worked with Hughes on the campaign for Prop. 47, said his fiscal conservatism was one reason criminal justice reform appealed to him. State government spends roughly $10 billion a year on incarceration and rehabilitation, yet 61 percent of inmates who are set free are back in prison within three years. Hughes saw it as a low return on a high investment.
But primarily, Anderson said, Hughes is motivated by a sense of fairness.
“He places a strong emphasis on making sure that there’s an opportunity for redemption and healing even for those who…in some circles would be called ‘the least of these.’ ”