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Destined to die in prison, he vowed to change his life. How he found redemption and his freedom

Hannah Wiley, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In his tan suit and gold tie, Jarad Nava blends in easily at the California Capitol, as though he's always belonged to its mahogany and rose-hued halls.

But underneath the button-down shirt — unseen and unimaginable to those who don't know his story — tattoos evoke his former life: on his arms, the name of a park his gang claimed as territory, rolling dice and an inked-over "P" that had represented Pomona; on his chest, flames licking up the base of his neck.

Just a few years ago, Nava was serving a 162-year sentence for a crime he committed when he was 17.

Now 28, the young man who once thought he'd never see the outside of a prison works as an assistant for the state Senate Public Safety Committee, an influential panel of lawmakers who review legislation related to the criminal justice system.

The irony is not lost on Nava, who eventually won his freedom by learning to atone and accept, truly accept, responsibility for what he had done. It required disciplined work, a newfound faith and, as Nava put it, serious reflection on what "led to me shooting at a car with four people in it."

An uneasy childhood


As recounted by Nava and in legal documents, he was born to a struggling 19-year-old mom and absent dad in the summer of 1995 in Battle Creek, Michigan. When he was a toddler, his mom uprooted them to Washington state, where she joined the Navy and met his stepfather, who became the boy's role model.

The family relocated to Pomona and grew to include three younger sisters. But given financial and other pressures, they never stayed anywhere for long, pingponging around Southern California and back to Michigan.

Nava said he liked school, at first, and excelled in math. But the transfers to a dozen or so schools between kindergarten and fifth grade made academics difficult.

"It felt like there was no stability," Nava said.


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