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California Lifers: Deaths Exceed Parole Releases

by John E. Dannenberg

Between 2000 and 2010, 775 California lifers died in prison while 674 were granted parole. Those statistics, released by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) pursuant to a public records request, reflect the grim reality that parole-eligible lifers are more likely to die in prison than to be granted release.

A good deal of the downward pressure on the number of lifer paroles, and the concomitant upward pressure on the number of deaths, can be attributed to two initiatives enacted by California voters. The first, in 1988, politicized the parole process by giving the governor unprecedented unilateral power to reverse grants of parole to life-sentenced prisoners. Between 1988 and 2010, all California governors have abused this power to reverse 75 to 99 percent of the few such grants of parole.

The second initiative, effective in 2009, tripled the intervals between parole hearings from a range of 1-5 years to a range of 3-15 years following an unfavorable parole decision, with a presumption of a 15-year delay until the next parole hearing unless a prisoner shows by “clear and convincing evidence” that he or she is deserving of a shorter interval. [See: PLN, May 2009, p.12].

Compounding these voter enactments is a 1996 legislative amendment to California’s good-time credit laws which eliminated all such credits towards lifers’ initial parole eligibility dates.

There are currently over 30,000 lifers in California’s prison system, including approximately 17,000 with murder convictions who are eligible for parole. An estimated 7,000 are “three-strikes” lifers, many with third-strike offenses that were neither serious nor violent crimes. Lifers serving time for murder, whose sentences are either 15 to life (2nd degree murder) or 25 to life (1st degree) are serving an average of 24 to 27 years (and growing) before being paroled, assuming they are paroled at all.

This is in spite of the fact that of the 988 lifers who have been released in the past two decades, only 6 have reoffended by committing violent or serious crimes (none of which were murder or sex offenses).

However, the trend for California lifers could be changing. Under pressure from state courts that increasingly have been granting habeas petitions challenging denials of parole by the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) and reversals of parole grants by the governor, more lifers have been gaining their freedom.

The most recent BPH statistics show that lifers are being granted parole in about 10% of hearings. Further, recent (2011) statistics from the governor’s office indicate that 82% of such grants of parole have been left untouched; that is, they have not been reversed by Governor Jerry Brown, unlike his predecessors.

The opposing forces of (a) political pressure to keep lifers in prison until they die, and (b) economic pressures that might force pragmatic increases in parole grant rates for lifers, will likely continue to compete. One can only hope that the concept of “human dignity” for state prisoners, invoked by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata, will eventually infuse reason into the parole decision-making process for California lifers.

Sources: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,

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