Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown approved four out of every five parole grant decisions by the Board of Parole Hearings (Board) for prisoners convicted of murder and sentenced to life with parole. Totaling parole grants for 377 lifers, Brown’s record dwarfs the scanty parole approvals of his predecessors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis.
California’s parole process for life-sentenced murderers has been stymied for decades by governors who fear the political repercussions of paroling lifers, based on what happened to former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Dukakis had permitted a violent prisoner serving a life sentence, Willie Horton, to have a weekend furlough; while on furlough Horton committed additional violent crimes, including armed robbery, assault and rape.
When Governor Dukakis later ran for President in 1988, his rivals produced a TV ad depicting a revolving door that showed him giving furloughs to violent felons. The infamous ad labeled Dukakis a “soft on crime” liberal who allowed dangerous criminals to commit more crimes. He subsequently lost the presidential election to George H.W. Bush.
Since then, few politicians have ventured to use their discretion to release prisoners serving life sentences for murder. In California, the first governor to be granted the statutory power to make such decisions was Gray Davis. His statement at the time was that if you killed someone, forget it – you’re not getting out (notwithstanding that state law requires release on parole to “normally” be granted). In his years as governor, Davis arbitrarily overruled every favorable Board parole decision for life-sentenced murderers, save five – equating to a lifer parole rate of a fraction of one percent.
After Davis was recalled by voters in 2003, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took over the duty of reviewing Board grants of parole. During his tenure the Board rendered slightly more favorable parole decisions and Schwarzenegger approved around 20% of parole grants for lifers. As a result, several hundred life-sentenced murderers were released. Additionally, courts were beginning to realize that the governor’s parole reversals were arbitrary and inconsistent with legal requirements, and a number of parole grants reversed by Governor Schwarzenegger were reinstated by the courts, resulting in more lifers being paroled (this writer among them). [See, e.g.: PLN, Sept. 2009, p.34; April 2009, p.30; March 2009, p.44; July 2007, p.22].
One person who witnessed those court battles was then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who had to repeatedly defend the state in largely-losing cases. According to Brown spokesman Evan Westrup, in 2011 state courts reinstated Board parole grant decisions that had been reversed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 106 of 144 challenges filed by prisoners.
Perhaps softened by the reality of these court losses, Brown, upon subsequently taking office as Governor, took a more practical view of his duty to review all favorable Board parole decisions for lifers. As a result, Governor Brown’s record in 2012 consisted of approving fully 80% of Board grants of parole for life-sentenced murderers.
Each year the Governor of California has a statutory duty to report to the legislature the results of his exercise of power under the parole review statute. On February 15, 2013, Brown reported that he had reversed 91 Board grants of parole, approved 377 favorable parole decisions and returned two cases to the Board for review. He also issued 128 pardons, mainly to expunge the records of prisoners who had already been released.
Governor Brown, a Jesuit in his younger years, has thus adopted a more realistic and humane view of the parole consideration process for lifers, which has long been a political football. At age 74, Brown’s political future is more limited than that of his predecessors. And with California’s prison medical budget being strained, and federal court-ordered prison population reductions limiting his options, he has taken a more balanced approach than other governors in selectively releasing life-sentenced prisoners on parole.
The results to date have been extremely encouraging. Fewer than 1% of paroled California murderers have returned to prison for committing new offenses – a figure that contrasts sharply with the 70% recidivism rate for other released state prisoners.
Source: Los Angeles Times
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