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California's New Governor Has Paroled 102 Lifers, But Rejected Twice That Many

The good news is that as of September 30, 2005, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has approved 102 lifers for parole since taking office two years ago, a vast improvement over former Governor Gray Davis' record of paroling just eight lifers during his five years in office. The bad news is that Schwarzenegger has rejected twice that number of parole recommendations sent to him by the state's Board of Prison Terms (BPT), recently renamed the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH). The 102 lifers who have been paroled under Schwarzenegger's watch include some who have been ordered released by state and federal courts.

But even this good news" is muted by the stark reality that there are over 27,250 prisoners in California facilities serving indeterminate life sentences, many of whom are long past the maximum punishment set by the Board's own regulations, who collectively cost California taxpayers over $1 billion a year in incarceration expenses (only 3,168 California prisoners with life sentences are true lifers, serving life without the possibility of parole). California law provides lifers serving indeterminate sentences the opportunity to earn their release. Instead, says Keith Wattley, a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office, a non-profit organization that advocates for prisoners' rights, given the small number of lifers recommended for parole and even smaller number who are actually paroled, what we have is a law that holds out the illusion of redemption, but in fact denies people any fair chance of living in a free society.

Ever since Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis saw his political career implode in 1988 after Willie Hortona state prisoner whom Dukakis had furloughedcommitted new violent crimes while on release, every governor with further political aspirations has been loathe to grant parole to prisoners serving indeterminate sentences for violent crimes.

Former California Governor Gray Davis, whose presidential aspirations evaporated when he was recalled from office in 2003 for being beholden to special interest groups (notably the California prison guards union, the CCPOA), was particularly outspoken about not releasing lifers. If you take someone else's life, forget it," Davis told the press. He even stated that he believed second-degree murderers should stay in prison for life, regardless of extenuating circumstances. In 2002 the California Supreme Court upheld Davis' right to deny parole, even for prisoners with spotless records.

Prior to Davis, former governor Pete Wilson was also stingy with paroles, having a record of one-seventh the current rate of Gov. Schwarzenegger. But Schwarzenegger, with a tough guy" public image grounded in heroic cop movie roles, has less to fear and can arguably avoid looking soft on crime, opined State Senator John Burton. Schwarzenegger has guts ... and isn't afraid of what people think," said Burton.

In addition to reviewing all BPH lifer parole grant recommendations, the governor also nominates commissioners for the parole board. Recently, Schwarzenegger chose Margarita Perez, a Democrat and former prison guard, as the BHP's new chairperson. Another nominee, Palmdale city councilman Richard Loa (who had actively supported Schwarzenegger in the recall election), was roundly criticized for his aggressive style of questioning prisoners during hearings and stepped down upon Schwarzenegger's unprecedented withdrawal of his nomination. Some prisoners who were denied parole by Loa are now asking for new hearings.

Additionally, many prisoners voiced concerns over Schwarzenegger's nomination of Commissioner Susan Fisher to the BHP. Fisher's brother was murdered in 1987 and she became a strong advocate for victims' rights. She served for years as head of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau (now known as the Crime Victims Bureau), which was financially supported by the CCPOA, and since 2000 has served as president of Citizens for Law and Order. But inclusive of Fisher, from 2003 to 2004 the Board decided to recommend parole to 217 out of 2,614 lifers it gave hearings to, and Fisher voted to grant parole in 7% of the cases she heard, only slightly lower than the Board average of 8%.

One unusual advocate for lifersbecause he is himself a former prisoneris Orange County attorney Rich Pfeiffer, who has represented hundreds of lifers before the BPH. Pfeiffer noted wistfully that Schwarzenegger was giving some prisoners more hope. They see people getting out. In the beginning, these hearings were futile," he said.

Schwarzenegger's legal secretary, Peter Siggin, credits the governor's willingness to parole lifers to a difference in philosophy, stating, He is a governor who believes people can reform and be reformed." Indeed, in July 2005 Schwarzenegger even changed the name of the state's Department of Corrections to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

This difference in philosophy hasn't been lost on lifers who have been released during Schwarzenegger's tenure. Adam Riojas, who was paroled by the governor on April 26, 2004, and who maintains he was wrongfully convicted of murder, said the Schwarzenegger administration is encouraging prisoners to turn their lives around. Under former governor Davis, he said, there was no reason to hope. I've seen a lot of inmates giving up," said Riojas. They would go ahead and fight and start using drugs or alcohol ... because they said Hey, I'm never getting out because no matter what I do these guys are not letting me out.'

Still, notes Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office, while Schwarzenegger is giving more hope to prisoners, he is reversing more than 50% of cases that the board is granting parole on." And considering the thousands of incarcerated lifers who have repeatedly been denied parole, that hope is a slim one.

Regardless, Gov. Schwarzenegger's willingness to release even a small number of lifers has raised the ire of victims' rights advocates and the CCPOA, which backed Gov. Davis in the 2003 recall election. Earlier this year, Crime Victims United of California ran a series of T.V. ads attacking Schwarzenegger for releasing dangerous prisoners. Shortly after the ads were aired, on April 11, 2005 the CCPOA staged a rally at the state Capitol, complete with wall-sized photos of non criminal and non police killed victims of violent crime.

Governor Schwarzenegger scaled back the number of paroles granted to lifers in 2005, approving parole recommendations at just over half the rate he did in 2003-2004. A spokesperson with the Schwarzenegger administration denied that the governor's parole decisions were based on politics, stating, The governor makes parole decisions on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind first and foremost what is in the best interests of public safety.

In one high-profile case, on March 25, 2005 Schwarzenegger reversed the BHP's recommendation of parole for convicted murderer James Tramel, who had served almost 20 years and was ordained as an Episcopal deacon while incarcerated. In a rare move, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's office had voiced support for Tramel's release. Upon denying Tramel parole, the governor stated his release from prison would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society&." Episcopal Bishop William Swing roundly criticized the governor's decision. Governors of California are good at executions,'' said Swing. Governors of California are 90-pound moral weaklings when it comes to restoration of human beings.''

And on May 18, 2005, Schwarzenegger denied parole to a battered woman, Linda Lee Smith, saying that while she may have been a victim of domestic violence, that was no defense. The governor stated that Smith, who has served 24 years for failing to prevent her boyfriend from murdering her two-year-old daughter, still poses an unreasonable threat to public safety.

Schwarzenegger has also dashed the hopes of prisoners housed on California's death row, denying clemency in each capital case that has crossed his desk. In his first capital case, on Jan. 1, 2004 the governor denied clemency to Kevin Cooper, whose execution was scheduled for Feb. 10, 2004. Just hours before he was to be put to death, Cooper received a reprieve from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which was upheld by the Supreme Court. Next, on Jan. 18, 2005 Schwarzenegger denied clemency to death row prisoner Donald Beardslee, who was executed the following day with relatively little fanfare.

Such was not the case with the next capital clemency petition, from Stanley Tookie" Williams. Williams, who was convicted for his role in four murders, was the co-founder of the notorious Crips gang. He was also the author of children's books with anti-gang messages and a five-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Williams' case garnered national and international attention, and Schwarzenegger was presented with arguments that Williams was a reformed man who did not deserve to die.

Although the governor granted Williams a private hearing on Dec. 8, 2005, on Dec. 12 he declined to grant the clemency petition. In his letter of denial, Schwarzenegger took the unusual step of criticizing the dedication of Williams' 1998 book, Life in Prison, to George Jackson among other current and former prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, and Leonard Peltier. Schwarzenegger found that the inclusion of George Jackson (a militant activist who founded the Black Guerilla Family prison gang and was charged with the murder of a San Quentin prison guard) on this list defies reason and is a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems." Stanley Tookie" Williams was executed on Dec. 13, 2005.

Schwarzenneger denied a clemency petition filed by death row prisoner Clarence Ray Allen. Allen turned 76 the day before his Jan. 17, 2006 execution. He was wheelchair-bound and suffered from a variety of health-related problems. He was the oldest prisoner in California and the second-oldest in U.S. history to be executed.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee.

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