Graduate Darren Ellis: NAU Online leads student to law school as he furthers his passion for criminal justice reform

Darren Ellis and his service dog

Darren Ellis’ journey to the commencement stage was circuitous.

The NAU Online senior, who graduates on Nov. 22 with a degree in justice studies, left his home in the San Francisco Bay more than a decade ago to get into law enforcement in Texas. After surviving a shooting, he left law enforcement in 2015 and started a small business. Then he moved to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona in preparation for law school.

Then his educational plans changed again, but with his wife working as a trauma nurse at Banner University Hospital, moving wasn’t an option. That led him to NAU Online, where he found his educational home and got to work—a key step on his path to law school and continuing his passion of criminal justice reform.

“The day of regressive ideologies and policies need to come to an end, something easily identifiable through the national demand for criminal justice and social justice reform,” Ellis said. “Incapacitation and deterrence theory have done nothing but prolong and extend sentences for criminal conduct while ignoring the cause of the conduct itself. It is imperative to address the behavioral and sociological causes for criminal conduct to reduce recidivism and overall crime rates.”

This has been Ellis’ passion for years. He is involved with the California Reentry Institute, a nonprofit organization that works with inmates in San Quentin State Prison, both while they are incarcerated and after they have been released, to prepare them for a successful return to society. The organization boasts a 0 percent recidivism rate among men who complete the program and also is seeing those men return to their neighborhoods and pledge to make those areas better. Ellis has worked to strengthen collaborative efforts in the Bay Area aimed at curbing violent crime and youth offending, including partnering with the TK Foundation, an at-risk youth organization founded by the family of a friend, Terrence Kelly, who was murdered the summer after he graduated from high school.

His classes in justice studies helped build his skill set and gave him opportunities to apply his life experiences to schoolwork. Since leaving law enforcement, Ellis started a business doing consulting for criminal law cases, which he continued to do while in school. He found information from his classes useful in real-world work, such as a class on dealing with mentally impaired offenders. The content could be adapted to CRI’s curriculum.

As an online student, Ellis worked to build open communication and the ability to connect with and learn from a variety of professors, who brought their skills and work experience to the curriculum.

“Northern Arizona University provided me the education and the degree necessary to move onto a legal education,” he said. “Finding the means within oneself to do so is an invaluable tool that not only aids in preparation for graduate school, but in the professional world as well. It is those skills acquired through an education at NAU that can have long-term career and life benefits for those who do not squander the opportunity they are given.”

Ellis, at 33, is the first in his family to graduate from college; his mother immigrated from Australia and her father immigrated to Australia from Wales, where he grew up sleeping on a dirt floor and served in World War II. Their examples motivated him as he pushed through the challenges of higher education, including dealing with the effects of the pandemic.

“The experiences gained and knowledge acquired at Northern Arizona University will do nothing short of opening the doors necessary to achieve the goals and aspirations of us all,” he said. “I implore you all to cherish these times and use them as a means to go after your dreams.