Ex-cons ‘living proof’ kids can turn lives around

Sang Dao and Noah Schultz both served time for crimes they committed as teens

Sang Dao and Noah Schultz, who turned their lives around while in prison, are now advocates for juvenile justice reform, May 20, 2016 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – At age 17, Sang Dao stood in a downtown courtroom where he waited to learn how much time he would spend behind bars after being convicted of attempted murder. One year and 8 months later, Noah Schultz – also 17 – would find himself before a judge convicted of first-degree assault.

When Dao was sentenced in April 2008, he received a prison sentence of 12.5 years. Schultz would be sentenced in December 2009 and would receive 7.5 years in prison.

Sang Dao, who turned his life around while in prison and was granted clemency by Gov. John Kitzhaber, is now an advocate for juvenile justice reform, May 20, 2016 (KOIN)

The two were sentenced under the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for offenders convicted of violent crimes.

At that point, the two boys had never met. But their paths would soon cross. They would be bunk-mates at a youth correctional facility, and they would become the faces to spur change within the juvenile justice system.

Sang Dao. Booking No. J0510071

As Sang Dao, now 26, described his past he stopped mid-sentence. His eyes looked down at the sidewalk outside the Portland Police Bureau’s North Precinct.

“When you sit in a cell for 23 hours a day and all you have is yourself to keep you company, you have to ask yourself: ‘Do you really like the company that you keep?” — Sang Dao

His life as a young boy living in east Oakland, California revolved around gang violence.

“I just didn’t have a good understanding, and I didn’t value my life,” Dao said. “I didn’t value other people’s lives at the time.”

His mother moved her family from California to Portland. The better life she had hoped for appeared to be evaporating.

Dao found himself as an outsider.  At school, he wasn’t able to make friends easily because of language barriers. To fill the void, he knew where he would find acceptance.

“I was heavily involved in gangs,” Dao recounted.

He stopped going to school. He became entrenched in a thuggish lifestyle. The cycle would spit him out.

“When I was 17, I was involved in several shootings that spanned over a couple months, which ultimately led me to my incarceration,” Dao said.

Noah Schultz. Booking No. J0415091

A series of bad choices and environmental factors led Noah Schultz down a dead-end road.

“I began selling drugs full time at the age of 12,” Schultz said.

Schultz, now 24, recounts the struggles he had at school. The difficulty began at an early age. When he was 10, he would be diagnosed with ADHD/ADD.

He began to think that he was stupid, “that school was something I just wasn’t good at and didn’t belong in.”

By age 13, he was initiated into his neighborhood gang.

“I began selling drugs full time at the age of 12” — Noah Schultz

“That threw me into a cycle of violence and very poor decision making,” Schultz said.

When he was 17, he was robbed during a drug deal gone badly.

“I just couldn’t take anymore and I retaliated against the guy,” Schultz said.

The decision would cost him dearly. He found himself facing a prison sentence of 7.5 years.

Two imprisoned boys become friends

Noah Schultz, who turned his life around while in prison, is now an advocate for juvenile justice reform, May 20, 2016 (KOIN)

Dao and Schultz both describe being unable to find an outlet for their emotions during their adolescent years. They would have to suppress everything. The only escape they had was violence.

While Dao was incarcerated, he would meet Schultz. They would spend about 8 years together developing a friendship.

“When you sit in a cell for 23 hours a day and all you have is yourself to keep you company, you have to ask yourself: ‘Do you really like the company that you keep?,” Dao said.

Sang Dao earned a degree in criminlogy and criminal justice and became an academic adviser to Noah Schultz — who earned his high school diploma while in custody

While Dao was serving his time at the Oregon Youth Authority MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, he would graduate with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice from Portland State University in June 2014.

“When I was sitting in there…and just reflecting on where I have been, I knew that I needed to change,” Dao said.

Education would be his way out.

“I was very fortunate to have a lot of mentors and a lot of supportive staff along the way,” he said. “My mom mothered me while I was inside a correctional facility.”

Dao enrolled in vocational programs and job opportunities. He took an OYA research internship that focused on youth rehabilitation.

By the time Schultz entered MacLaren, Dao was well on his way to success.

“He was my academic advisor,” Schultz said with a wide smile on Friday as he addressed a large group of people gathered at the bi-weekly Community Peace Collaborative meeting at North Precinct.

The two boys would become bunk-mates. They would talk about the light at the end of the tunnel. Each would encourage the other not to let the four walls of their dormitory define them.

By age 19, Schultz would earn his high school diploma while in custody.

Sang Dao’s prison sentence was commuted by Gov. John Kitzhaber, Feb. 17, 2015 (KOIN 6 News/file)

Eventually, he would be transferred to the Oregon Youth Authority Camp Florence Youth Transitional Facility where he would enroll in Lane Community College. Last year, Schultz earned his Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Family Sciences and a B.S. in Sustainability through online education from Oregon State University.

“I have completely re-wrote my being,” Schultz said. “Every cell in my body is different than it was when I was 17.”

Eight years into his 12.5 year prison sentence, Dao had achieved so much that he gained the support and respect of the very people who fought to put him behind bars. Their support ultimately led then-Gov. John Kitzhaber to issue him clemency.

The commutation letter Gov. Kitzhaber wrote for Sang Dao on his last day as governor, Feb. 17, 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

Sang Dao: Life Today

For just over a year now, Dao has been a program aide and a Juvenile Court Counselor Assistant for the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice Juvenile Services Division. According to the county, Dao is working side-by-side with juvenile justice experts and mentors who strive to reform the justice system.

Noah Schultz: Life Today

Dao describes his friend Schultz as being a “social innovator.”

“I think what’s great about Noah is his visions of wanting to effect global, worldwide change,” Dao said.

Schultz is a spoken word poet. He has since published a collection of poetry in a booked titled “Morse Code Kisses.” According to Amazon.com, “it is the documentation of a starving heart and resilient soul.”

On Friday, Schultz recited three short poems to the CPC meeting.

“I got respect from the pistol I was holding. I never knew I had it aimed at my own head” — from a poem by Noah Schultz

In a poem titled “Public School” Schultz highlights the struggles he had with education at a very young age.

“My knowledge came from the streets of the broken hearted,” he said.

Another poem called “Prison Stories” recounts his life as a teen and what it was like to hear stories about his father being sentenced to prison when he too was a teenager. His father would tell Schultz and his siblings about suffering he went through when he was sent to prison.

“I got respect from the pistol I was holding,” Schultz read. “I never knew I had it aimed at my own head.”

Schultz remembers the confusion he had when he realized that both he and his father had faced the same prison sentence – decades apart.

“Which had me asking was this a cycle or a coincidence? And how many other kids were sitting in the same circumstance? Handcuffs on their wrists fit perfectly like a twisted family heirloom. Prison is not an heirloom, yet it is passed down through the same lips that say I love you.”

Changing the juvenile justice system

Schultz and Dao are adamant that change is needed within the juvenile justice system locally and nationally.

Schultz and Dao believe mentors, educational and occupational programs is key to reducing recidivism

They both credit their success to the mentors they had while in custody.

“Kids are able to turn their lives around,” Dao said. “I mean, I’m living proof and I’m a testament to that.”

Schultz said the branding of teen offenders can be detrimental to their ability to reform.

“I believe every youth is a diamond,” he said. “Sometimes they lack the polish to get that shine.”

Both Schultz and Dao believe having mentors and educational and occupational programming inside correction facilities is the key to reducing recidivism.

“If you put that kid in the room with scientist, teachers, and other things of that nature then they’re going to inspire to be something else,” Schultz said.

He describes taking advantage of every opportunity he was given.

“I looked at what my future would have been if I had continued down that road…and I knew that I would either end up in and out of the system, I was going to end up dead or I was gonna end up pretty much nowhere.”

“Hope is the biggest thing,” Dao said. “It is what guided me through.”

Sang Dao and Noah Schultz, who turned their lives around while in prison, are now advocates for juvenile justice reform, May 20, 2016 (KOIN)