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Binnall Takes The Hard Road Back

Published: February 1, 2016

When James Binnall, a new face this fall in Criminology, Criminal Justice and Emergency Management, taught last year at Georgia’s Savannah Law School, “I was the only tenure-track law professor in the country who was an openly convicted person,” he noted.

He came to Long Beach with a pretty interesting story. When he was halfway through his master’s degree at New York’s Wagner College, where he was the youngest Division I wrestling coach in the country, he was in a car accident.

“We had been drinking, a good friend of mine and me, when we had the accident and he was killed,” said Binnall, who has a JD, an LLM and a Ph.D. “I was in the hospital for three months. I went back to work on crutches. I had to learn to walk again.”

When he finished at Wagner, he was charged and sentenced for his role in the accident.

“I ended up spending four years, one month and six days in maximum security prisons,” he said. “I took my law school boards in my prison cell and scored pretty well.”

He submitted applications to various universities and, even though he was accepted everywhere he applied but one, the campuses who accepted him said he had to be off parole before he began…except one.

“I still had three years of parole to do when I got home,” he recalled. “The only place that would let me start right away, and had a spring start, was Thomas Jefferson Law School in San Diego. They gave me a full scholarship based on my LSAT scores.” He completed parole and law school for his JD in 2007. He went on to pass the bar in California before receiving his LLM from Georgetown Law School and his Ph.D. from UC Irvine in 2015.

“I had schools tell me, flat out, ‘We’d love to hire you but we can’t even talk to you based on our school’s policy,’” he recalled. “In that respect, CSULB was great. Yes, I had to go through mountains of paperwork to get cleared to work here but there was never an issue about that being a hang-up to my coming here.”

The topic of his UCI doctoral dissertation was something he knew all to well—re-entry.

“I focused on the inability of convicted felons to serve on juries,” he said. “There are restrictions on their service in 49 jurisdictions. In 28 jurisdictions, convicts are permanently barred from jury duty including California. What are the reasons courts and lawmakers give for these exclusions?”

Binnall wants to teach about incarceration from the point of view of someone who has been inside and about probation and parole from the perspective of someone who has been on both.

“When I started studying law, especially criminal law, I would sit in class and hear about ‘those people’ and what ‘they’ were like,” he recalled. “At the time, I was one of ‘them.’” He began writing articles about parole as well as search and seizure issues and how those actions might inhibit a parolee’s re-entry into society.

One reason for Binnall’s survival is a supportive family.

James Binnall
James Binnall

“It made all the difference in the world, especially in the first six months,” he recalled when discussing his release from prison. “I had a roof over my head, food and clothes. There are guys who come out who don’t have that. That first six months is crucial. You let go of your prison habits and getting yourself back into the real world.”

He believes one reason for his success was the establishment of a narrative that recognizes he did certain things but that he is not that person anymore.

“I am an attorney who has passed the state bar and can try a death penalty case in California, yet cannot serve on a jury in California,” he said. “What these rules do is remind that person who is trying to make his narrative jive, that he is still that old person who did the crime. They begin to ask how they can ever be a law-abiding person.”

Binnall emerged from incarceration with holes in his experience. “When I was incarcerated from 2000 to 2004, I missed the cell phone craze,” he said. “I didn’t know how to use a cell phone when I got out because they weren’t around when I went in. Our expression in prison was that the world changes every five years. If someone does 10 years, the things they miss technologically can be completely overwhelming, especially during those first six months.”

But, Binnall feels he has survived his ordeal with his goal intact.

“That goal is to be a person who got into academia and gives voice for the people who don’t usually cross the fence and get into this side of things,” he said.