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California Lifers Paroled in Record Numbers

Prisoners serving life sentences in California have been paroled at a record rate since Governor Jerry Brown took office in January 2011 – a positive trend in the view of many advocacy groups, but one that causes worry among victims’ rights advocates despite statistics which reveal a recidivism rate of less than one percent for paroled lifers.

California is one of only three states where the governor has final say on decisions by state parole boards (Maryland and Oklahoma are the other two), and Brown has approved parole for 82% of the 1,590 lifers whose cases were presented to him by the California Board of Parole Hearings (Board). During the first 2½ years he was in office, more lifers were released from prison than during the previous three gubernatorial administrations combined.

Governor Brown has reversed the Board’s recommendations less than 20% of the time compared to his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose reversal rate hovered at 70%. Former Governor Gray Davis reversed most of the Board’s decisions, granting parole to less than one in 10 lifers whose files crossed his desk. The consequence of such a tough-on-parole stance was a dramatic increase in the number of life-sentenced prisoners. As of 2013 more than 26,000 prisoners in California – one in five – were serving life sentences, which was the highest percentage of lifers among state prison populations.

While some point to overcrowding as the reason behind the increase in the number of prisoners being paroled, most observers credit a 2008 California Supreme Court decision that changed the legal landscape for offenders serving life sentences. That case involved Sandra Davis Lawrence, who spent 24 years in prison for fatally shooting her lover’s wife during a jealous rage. The Board recommended her release four times, but three different governors reversed those decisions. [See: PLN, April 2009, p.30].

In upholding Lawrence’s parole, the state Supreme Court held it was no longer sufficient to base parole decisions on the viciousness of the crime. Rather, lifers have the right to present evidence of rehabilitative efforts at their parole hearings to demonstrate they are no longer a threat to society. The Court found that Lawrence had cited “overwhelming” evidence she had been rehabilitated and, therefore, was no longer dangerous.

That decision changed everything, according to Jennifer Shaffer, executive director of the Board of Parole Hearings. “As you can imagine, if their crime alone could keep them from being paroled forever then that was really not life with the possibility of parole. So there had to be something else,” she said.

Governor Brown pointed to the change in the law as the key element in his approach to making lifer parole decisions. He said he was not in a position to explain why so many parole recommendations were reversed by previous governors, stating, “I don’t know what they did and whether they read the record or whether they looked at the law.”

“If an individual is eligible for parole and the board determines they are no longer a threat, the law says they must be paroled unless there is firm evidence indicating they are still a threat,” explained Brown spokesman Evan Westrup.

The governor also pointed to his core belief that people can change as a factor in granting parole. “I have been brought up in the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church,” he said, “and redemption is at the very core of that religion.”

Prior to 2008, California had stringent parole restrictions that made parole almost impossible for lifers. A Stanford University study of parole rates from 1990 to 2010 found that those convicted of murder had only a 6% chance of leaving prison alive. Since the 2008 California Supreme Court decision, however, around 3,000 lifers have been paroled – including a record 670 in 2012 – compared to the three decades prior to the ruling, when only 180 lifers were released on parole. More than 80% of lifers are serving time for murder; the others were mostly convicted of sex offences and kidnapping.

Some victims’ rights advocates think the mounting number of paroled lifers is a dangerous trend. Christine Ward, who heads the Crime Victims Action Alliance, called the new parole policy an experiment with public safety.

“It really is like playing Russian roulette,” she said. “We just hope that that one time bomb doesn’t go off and create that really serious, heinous crime that will leave not only that family devastated but the entire state devastated. We’ve seen it before.”

Even the notion that a lifer could be paroled creates stress for families of crime victims. At a Sacramento rally for victims, Susan Hamlin spoke about the emotional distress caused by having to attend a parole hearing for a person who had victimized her family. ”The dread of this hearing and fear of his possible release set in a full year prior to the hearing,” she stated.

Governor Brown told the rally that crime victims are not forgotten, despite the rise in the number of lifers being granted parole. “When you come here and you show us the pictures of real human beings who are your loved ones who were murdered, then it isn’t abstract,” he told the crowd. “It’s a person.”

Most data points to a low risk of recidivism for paroled lifers. A Stanford University study found, for example, that of 860 murderers released on parole in California between 1995 and 2010, only five were returned to prison for committing new felonies and none for crimes requiring life terms, such as murder. Another study quoted by the Los Angeles Times revealed that 33 parolees were returned to custody for mostly “technical violations,” such as “using drugs,” “buying beer,” “public use of alcohol,” “unpermitted travel to visit family” and “possessing a banned iPhone.”

By contrast, California’s overall recidivism rate has been estimated at nearly 50% in recent years.

Experts point to the age of lifer parolees as a contributing factor in their lower recidivism rates: The average age of lifers at their parole hearings is 51. State prison officials have also taken steps to help life-sentenced prisoners prepare for release, now that the likelihood is not as remote, such as offering a program on leadership at San Quentin State Prison.

Over the course of several weeks, prisoners who enroll in ELITE, or “Exploring Leadership and Improving Transitional Effectiveness,” learn skills such as managing emotions, active listening and using consensus to build coalitions. The program also teaches prisoners how traits like impulsiveness, pessimism, anger and lack of personal empathy can contribute to criminal behavior. Prison officials say taking the course prepares prisoners for life on the outside and helps them demonstrate their suitability for parole.

“Most of these guys understand there is a light at the end of the tunnel now, so it just helps improve the overall environment for them,” said Associate Warden Jeff Lawson. “And it gets the ones who were maybe straddling the fence to actually get off the fence and get on the right side.”

After completing the ELITE program, lifer Duane Reynolds said he was optimistic that he would soon be paroled after being turned down three times during the 24 years he had served in prison. “I murdered my supervisor,” he said, “high on drugs. So my life was out of control.” Reynolds, who was 30 years old at the time of the crime, is now in his 50s.

“The fact that people are going home is just really encouraging to a lot of individuals” serving life sentences, he noted.

That encouragement may be coming to an end, however. The most recent Executive Report on Parole Review Decisions issued by Governor Brown’s office, covering the period from January 1 through December 31, 2015, detailed his actions on 96 parole decisions. Of those, he reversed 95 recommendations for parole and modified one.

Sources: Associated Press,,,,,,,

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