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February 25, 2014

Thanks to Gov. Brown, Plata, budget woes, state court rulings and/or _____, California lifers now have a real chance for parole

MadlibsThe weird "Mad-Libs" title to this post is my reaction and query in response to this notable new AP report headlined "California 'lifers' leaving prison at record pace."  Here are the details:

Nearly 1,400 lifers in California's prisons have been released over the past three years in a sharp turnaround in a state where murderers and others sentenced to life with the possibility of parole almost never got out. Gov. Jerry Brown has granted parole to a record number of inmates with life sentences since he took office in January 2011, going along with parole board decisions about 82 percent of the time.

Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, authorized the release of 557 lifers during his six-year term, sustaining the board at a 27 percent clip. Before that, Gov. Gray Davis over three years approved the release of two.

This dramatic shift in releases under Brown comes as the state grapples with court orders to ease a decades-long prison crowding crisis that has seen triple bunking, prison gyms turned into dormitories and inmates shipped out of state.

Crime victims and their advocates have said the releases are an injustice to the victims and that the parolees could pose a danger to the public. More than 80 percent of lifers are in prison for murder, while the remaining are mostly rapists and kidnappers.  "This is playing Russian roulette with public safety," said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance.  "This is a change of philosophy that can be dangerous."

The governor's office said the overcrowding crisis plays no role in the parole decisions. Rather, the governor's office said, each case is addressed individually and Brown is bound by court orders that require state officials to ease the stringent parole requirements that have dramatically increased the time murderers spend in prison.

Today, an inmate convicted of first-degree murders can expect to serve an average of 27 years -- almost twice what it was two decades ago before California became the fourth state to give governors the politically fraught final decision on lifer paroles.  Since then, the number of lifers has grown from 9,000 to 35,000 inmates, representing a quarter of the state prison population.

But two seminal California Supreme Court rulings in 2008 have significantly eased tough parole restrictions.  The court ordered prison officials to consider more than the severity of the applicant's underlying crimes.  It ruled that inmates' records while incarcerated plus their volunteer work should count heavily in assessing early release.

State figures show that since the rulings, the board has granted parole to nearly 3,000 lifers, including 590 last year and a record 670 in 2012.  In the three decades prior to the 2008 rulings, only about 1,800 such prisoners were granted parole.

Davis allowed only two inmates released out of 232 board decisions granting parole between 1999 and 2002. Schwarzenegger sustained the board at a 27 percent clip during his seven years in office when he was presented with 2,050 paroles granted by the board. Brown has allowed 82 percent of the 1,590 paroles granted by the board.

Brown's office says he is operating under a different legal landscape than previous governors, and that he is following court rulings and a 23-year-old state law that gave governors the power to block paroles of lifers who the state board found suitable for release....

Gov. Pete Wilson, the first governor vested with veto power, used it sparingly, though the parole board was approving just a few dozen paroles a year compared with the hundreds the board has been approving in recent years.  Between 1991 and when he left office in January 1999, he approved 115 of the 171, or 67 percent, of the lifers the board found suitable for release....

The few studies of recidivism among released lifers including a Stanford University report show they re-offend at much lower rates than other inmates released on parole and none has been convicted of a new murder.  Of the 860 murderers paroled between 1990 and 2010 that Stanford tracked, only five inmates committed new crimes and none were convicted of murder. The average released lifer is in his mid-50s.  Experts say older ex-cons are less prone to commit new crimes than younger ones.

Brown has reversed the parole board.  On Friday, his office announced it blocked the parole of 100 inmates deemed fit by the board for release and sent two others back to the board for reconsideration.  One of those inmates found fit for release by the board but blocked by Brown was James Mackey, a former University of Pacific football player found guilty of shooting his victim with a crossbow and then strangling him. Brown said Mackey hasn't sufficiently owned up to the crime.  "Until he can give a better explanation for his actions," Brown wrote, "I do not think he is ready to be released."

Ernest Morgan on the other hand, is a lifer Brown did let free. Morgan, a San Francisco man convicted of the shotgun slaying of his 14-year-old stepsister burglarizing the family home, was turned down for parole five times before the board granted him parole, only to be overruled by Schwarzenegger.... "So I was devastated when Schwarzenegger denied my release," said Morgan, who now is majoring in business management at San Francisco State. "I felt I was a political pawn who would never get out."

In 2011, Brown approved his release after 24 years in prison. Brown made no comment in granting Morgan his release. Instead, the governor signaled his approval by taking no action within 30 days of the parole board's decision becoming official. "It's been a remarkable and unexpected change," said Johanna Hoffman, Morgan's lawyer who has represented hundreds of lifers vying for parole since becoming a California lawyer in 2008. "The overcrowding issue has a huge amount to do with it."

February 25, 2014 at 07:04 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: Adamakis | Feb 25, 2014 9:21:45 PM

So much for the idea that prison releases were going to be limited to "low level offenders."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 25, 2014 10:02:58 PM

I have always heard that crime rates decrease with age. However, I wonder if the crime meter continues to whir, just in another direction. For example, all those child sexual abuse cases by grandpa. All the shoplifting is now overlooked because return to prison would bust the health care budget. Then they kill the old lady by putting a pillow over her face, but because she is old, no autopsy, and she gets categorized as having had a heart attack. The guy goes to a nursing home, rapes dozens of non-verbal Alzheimer patients who do not even recall the crime.

I would like the DOJ to provide a certificate of absolute immunity, and a candid survey of the crimes committed just that day by the elderly, with extrapolation to the rest of the year.

It is also said that children have a low crime rate. However, these prisoners began the crime spree at age 3, if one can count the physical and sexual assaults on kids and adults, the relentless stealing, the dozens of arsons, and yes, even the hundreds of murders a year of smaller kids. We know that crime by children are not counted even in victim surveys, let alone reported to the police.

So the low crime rates of children and of elderly people may be markedly underestimated.

One sure way to test the real world consequences of these natural disasters loosed by vile feminist, pro-criminal judges, is to enact legislation that all early releases be referred to half way house on the same block as the residence of the lawyer traitor to our nation. If the releases continue, I would end my objection to them.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 25, 2014 10:29:19 PM

"Today, an inmate convicted of first-degree murders can expect to serve an average of 27 years -- almost twice what it was two decades ago before California became the fourth state to give governors the politically fraught final decision on lifer paroles."

Some of this has to do with changes in the good time work time credits that inmates could earn while in prison. It was about 20 years ago that the ability to earn good time work time for murderers was eliminated. Now they can earn none, before it was up to half off the sentence.

Additionally one of the reasons why paroled murderers in the past had low rates of recidivism is only the cream of the crop were being released. Given the number of murderers being released now that is sure to change.

Posted by: David | Feb 26, 2014 12:33:38 AM

Gee, in light of that Stanford study, how about "so much for the alarmist predictions by me and my ideological colleagues that releasing homicide offenders would lead to anarchy, blood in the streets, and preventable murders."

Posted by: anon | Feb 26, 2014 11:51:45 AM

anon --

Go quote me when I supposedly said that "releasing homicide offenders would lead to anarchy, blood in the streets, and preventable murders."

You're not about to, since you fabricated it.

No wonder you're too yellow to give your name.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 26, 2014 1:13:21 PM

While it’s commendable that Brown has been going along with the parole board's recommendations in a much higher proportion of cases than his predecessors, this AP article exaggerates the changes during his administration.

By reporting raw numbers of parole board grants and comparing them over time, the story exaggerates Brown's contributions. The parole board has issues such a large number of parole grants under Brown because the total number of hearings has increased over time, and that's because the total number of lifers has grown. But if you look at parole grants as a percentage of hearings, the change is modest. In 2011 and 2012, the Brown-appointed parole board granted parole in 12.9% of its hearings. During Schwarzenegger's tenure, the board granted parole in 9.5% of its hearings. That difference is not as dramatic as the article suggests. Given that parole board commissioners are governor-appointees, Brown could have a much greater impact on the parole board’s grant rate. (see: http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/BOPH/docs/BPH_Hearing_Results_CY_1978_to_2012.pdf)

Another important part of this story is the duration of denials. I have heard from advocates and prisoners that the board is more often relying on the extended grant denials created by Marsy's Law and having prisoners wait longer periods of time until their next hearing. This claim would require some more investigating since the total number of hearings has been increasing at an apparently healthy rate.

Brown’s approval rate of the board's decisions is quite high. But given his authority over the parole board, it's surprising that they haven't increased their grant rate even more. And while it makes sense politically that he's reversed some of their decisions, one could fault him for even the 19% of reversals given how strict the board is in granting parole.

Posted by: Nazgol Ghandnoosh | Feb 27, 2014 3:14:05 PM

"Nazgol" is incorrect in several of his/her points.

1) The actual grant rate for lifer inmates in California (namely the rate when you do not count cancelled, postponed or continued hearings the way the Board of Parole Hearings, "BPH", does) has increased dramatically over the last few years-please see the percentages below:

2) The total number of hearings has NOT increased over time. In fact the number has varied substantially. That is why the actual grant rate is so important and shows the dramatic increase in lifer hearing grants under this Administration. See below for the total number of BPH lifer parole hearings held by year:

3) Any claim that BPH is "strict" in granting parole ignores the above and the reality of what is now happening in lifer hearings.

4) The duration of denials by BPH shows a routine, shall we say avoidance, of the mandates of Marsy's Law. The % rate for lifer hearing denials by BPH for hearings held in 2013 are as follows:
3 YRS-60%
5 YRS-25%
7 YRS-11%
10 YRS-3%
15 YRS-1%

5) Even those 3 year denials are misleading since BPH is now automatically reviewing all such denials to see if the qualify to have a hearing IN ADVANCE of the 3 years.

The bottom line is that the current administration is presiding over an unprecedented cascade of released lifer inmates. This is a result of a deliberate policy decision to go along with 3 liberal federal judges (Reinhardt, Karlton & Henderson) as they preside over cutting the California prison population by a third. Further, it is the people of this state that will be suffering the consequences of this decision, just as they bore the consequences of all the failed "rehabilitation, not incarceration" policies so prevalent in the 70's (that just happened to coincide with the current Governor's past-go-round). George Santayana was right, again.

Posted by: Cal Prosecutor | Feb 28, 2014 1:22:24 PM

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