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California: Stanford Report Analyzes Lifer Paroles

In a first-of-its-kind, long-overdue study, the Stanford Criminal Justice Center (SCJC) has examined the parole release process for parole-eligible "life" prisoners in California, now numbering more than 32,000.

As of 2010, lifers comprised more than one-fifth of California's prisoner population, a higher percentage than any other state. Most lifers (71%) were convicted of first- or second-degree murder, with 8,299 (35%) in the former camp and 8,654 (36%) in the latter camp.

In the 21-year period from 1990 through 2010, 375 first-degree murderers and 701 second-degree murderers were released on parole. Each of those groups served an average of 20 years in prison.

Of the 860 murderers paroled since 1995, only five have committed new felonies (and none of those has been for a new life-term offense). That rate of recidivism, less than one percent, compares very favorably with the state's overall recommitment rate for new crimes, which is approximately 50 percent.

The SCJC report found that, as a percentage of conducted hearings, the grant rates by the parole board "fluctuated erratically" from 1980 through 2010. Curiously, the grant rate was at or near 10% at the beginning and end of that period, but was always lower in between, being close to zero in the mid-1990's (when Pete Wilson was Governor).

Since 2008, when the California Supreme Court clarified that denial of parole had to be tied to current dangerousness (rather than merely to the immutable circumstances of the commitment offense), see In re Lawrence (2008) 44 Cal.4th 1181, the parole grant rate has increased and is currently at about 18%.

On the other hand, since 1990, lifers have had to contend with the possibility of gubernatorial reversals of board-proposed parole grants. The Governor's use of the power to reverse parole grants has varied dramatically: (1) while Pete Wilson reversed "only" 27% of proposed grants, under his watch (1991-1999), the parole board recommended parole in only a handful of cases; (2) Gray Davis publicly proclaimed that he would not parole anyone convicted of murder and then proceeded to reverse virtually all the grants during his term (1999-2003); (3) Arnold Schwarzenengger reversed about 60% of grants during his term (2003-2011), but also referred an additional 20% back to the parole board for further review; (4) the current Governor, Jerry Brown, has thus far reversed parole in only about 20% of the cases he has reviewed.

Taking gubernatorial reversals into account, the likelihood of a convicted murderer being released on parole was less than one percent in the period from 1991 through 2003, and did not exceed three percent until 2008. In 2010, that likelihood edged past six percent.

SCJC reviewed some 750 lifer parole hearing transcripts, constituting a random sample of 10% of all hearings conducted in the period between October 2007 and January 2010. Their review revealed that the grant rate in 2010 (23%) was nearly triple what it was in 2007 and 2008 (8%). Overall, 13% of the hearings in the sample resulted in a (proposed) parole grant.

A more detailed analysis suggests that victim opposition reduces the odds of a parole grant by more than half, but that, counter-intuitively, neither age nor prior criminal history significantly affects parole release decisions.

Serious prison misconduct appears to be significantly associated with parole denial, as are also moderate to high psychological risk assessments for recidivism.

While drug/alcohol abuse by itself appears not to be correlated with the grant rate, the ability to correctly answer questions relating to 12-step programs (for those who participate in such programs) does affect whether a lifer is granted or denied parole.

Curiously, grant rates differ dramatically by facility, ranging from less than 10% at Folsom and Pleasant Valley to more than a third at Mule Creek and the California Institution for Women.

Source: Life In Limbo: An Examination of Parole Release for Prisoners Serving Life Sentences with the Possibility of Parole in California, Stanford Criminal Justice Center, Sept. 2011; Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 16, 2011.

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