by Ed Lyon
California is getting serious about reversing its long history of mass incarceration. From a 2008 state supreme court ruling that abolished parole denials based on the seriousness and nature of the offense to a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering California to reduce its prison population, the pendulum is slowly swinging toward a more balanced justice system.
Under Governor Jerry Brown, a “realignment” policy has been implemented which diverts certain state prisoners to county jails and supervised release programs. Proposition 47, passed by voters in 2014, reduced penalties for certain crimes – notably theft and drug offenses. [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.42]. Proposition 57, enacted in 2016, increases the number of prisoners eligible for parole [see: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.12], and in April 2017 state officials announced new guidelines to implement provisions of that ballot initiative.
One example of Proposition 57 in action is Kao Saelee, who was 17 when he participated in a gang-related shooting that killed one child and injured two others. He served 10 years of a life term and was recently recommended for parole.
“It used to be, you could ask a life term inmate if they had ever known anybody that had received a [parole] date and the answer was ‘no,’” said Parole Board executive officer Jennifer Shaffer. “Now there is not a single life inmate, I believe, who doesn’t know somebody who has gotten a date.”
San Bernardino County prosecutor Michael A. Ramos asked, “Are you kidding me? I mean what’s going on in this state?” in reference to six prisoners convicted of murder being paroled to that county. Despite life term prisoners and those convicted of murder having the lowest recidivism rates in California, Ramos continued to rant. “We’re going to have to take back this system,” he said.
The parole grant rate in California has been creeping up, from under two percent in 2007 to 16 percent in 2016.
Governor Brown plans to spend $50 million on post-release job training and employment assistance for prisoners who are paroled. One aim is to reduce the state’s current average 46% recidivism rate. Los Angeles County Assemblyman Tom Lackey agreed that the recidivism rate must be lowered, as did San Francisco Assemblyman Phil Ting.
“The voters spoke clearly in Prop. 57 that they want true rehabilitation in our prison system, and in order to have true rehabilitation we must ensure a balance of incentives and sanctions in any regulations that are permanently adopted,” noted Mary Butler, president of Chief Probation Officers of California.
The California Board of Parole conducts up to 400 parole hearings a month. Under Proposition 57, prisoners can earn additional sentence reduction credits for good behavior and participating in rehabilitative and educational programs.
“I am one who most believes in rehabilitation, but I also know that in prison, the capacity to rehabilitate has not expanded much,” said state Senator Jim Nielsen, who questioned the recent parole reforms. “I also know that in the community rehabilitative opportunities have not expanded much.”
Besides Ramos and Nielsen, not everyone is happy with the increased parole grant rates. In April 2018, family members of three children murdered by their mother, Megan Hogg, asked Governor Brown to block Hogg’s parole. The parole board had recommended early release from her sentence of 25 years to life.
That same month, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office filed suit against the Board of Parole, arguing that the board’s hearing for state prisoner Lawrence Cowell had been scheduled too early and with inadequate notice. Cowell, serving 25 years to life, had been convicted of luring his friend, Scott Campbell, onto an airplane, where he was assaulted by an accomplice and thrown out mid-air. His body was never recovered.
Scheduled for a parole hearing in 2019, Cowell’s hearing was moved up to May 2018 – but the Campbell family was not notified of the new hearing date in violation of Marsy’s Law, which established rights for victims and their surviving family members. [See: PLN, Feb. 2018, p.52].
“What is going on in the state of California to victims is very unfair and very demeaning to a family that is already hurting,” said Collene Campbell, Scott’s mother. “Something needs to be done, something needs to be changed. The good people are being knocked around.”
“Over the last few few years we have been going through a time in this state of the wholesale release of prisoners,” added Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. “Laws have been made to reduce the number of people in prison.... I see this as part of that. It is a continuation of this movement to get people out of prison.”
As Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levinson pointed out, “I don’t know if anyone is ever going to be convinced that we have reached the perfect medium” with respect to efforts to reduce California’s prison population, which is the second-largest in the nation.
Sources: www.latimes.com, www.sjchronicle.com, www.vvdailypress.com, www.ocregister.com, www.usnews.com
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