LONG BEACH, Calif. — After launching his nonprofit from a cell in San Quentin State Prison, Ceasar McDowell feels good to be in his Long Beach office.

He has been out for about a year, having served 20 years of a life sentence for threatening his then-girlfriend. He's now helping others get out through Unite the People, Inc., which provides legal services at a reduced rate for families and friends of people in prison.

What You Need To Know

  • LA District Attorney George Gascón held a roundtable discussion with crime victims Tuesday where they discussed ways to reform his office

  • Crime survivor Ceasar McDowell said he turned to crime after his own father was brutally murdered during a robbery in 1992

  • Looking back, McDowell said more social services could have prevented the trauma he caused other people

  • McDowell launched a non-profit, Unite the People, Inc. to provide discounted legal services to people in prison

“Helping the guys who are incarcerated…that helps the community,” McDowell said.

As an ex-con, McDowell is a big fan of Los Angeles County’s progressive district attorney, George Gascón, who has drawn fire for ending sentencing enhancements and helping convicted felons win back their freedom.

"It’s just somebody that’s human, somebody with empathy," McDowell said. "I mean, instead of, 'Let’s lock 'em all up and throw away the key,' let's try to fix them, heal them, heal the community."

When McDowell finally got the chance to meet his champion face-to-face, he told a story he’d kept inside for decades: the story of how his own father, famous funk singer Mitch McDowell, was brutally murdered during a robbery in 1992. After disbanding his funk group, General Kane, the older McDowell had run a bail bond business that supported the family.

When he arrived at the crime scene, Ceasar McDowell was hardly treated like a crime victim. He and his brother were handcuffed and taken to jail, under suspicion they were somehow involved. Months later, the teenager with no father, no income and no support committed his first armed robbery. In retrospect, McDowell said, he needed an intervention.

"It’s like, where were the resources for that 17-year-old kid that was living with a 19-year-old kid in a house with no food, no water, no electricity?" McDowell said.

During the DA’s roundtable discussion with McDowell and other crime survivors, it became clear victims need more than justice: They need services, stability and therapy.

“Whether you were forgiving someone that hurt you, to whether you are someone still in deep pain, and everything in between, the consistent message was the system hasn’t worked well for them,” Gascón said.

In October, Gascón’s office announced a national search for a new head of the Bureau of Victim Services to expand and revamp social service programs offered to victims while they navigate the criminal justice system.

McDowell said it wasn’t until he was inside San Quentin that he was diagnosed with PTSD and finally got the therapy that helped him cope with his own trauma and the trauma he caused others. Police never uncovered who murdered his father.

"I mean, it’s always going to be raw," McDowell said.

Decades later, he is coping with the tragedy by helping others, with the memory of his father by his side.