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August 20, 2014

Detailing the significant increase in California lifers getting parole

This local article, headlined "Life with parole no longer means life term: Legal ruling causes steady rise in parole for California's lifers," highlights that parole has recently become a realistic possibility again for lifers in California. Here are the details:

Not so long ago, the conventional wisdom in legal circles was that any violent criminal sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in California wasn’t likely to ever walk out of prison. Whether that inmate had served the minimum on a term of 15 years to life or 25 years to life seemed inconsequential for many prisoners in the 1990s and early 2000s. In California, life meant life.

But that’s not the case anymore. In 2009, 221 lifer inmates were released from prison on parole, more than twice the number from the year before, according to the Governor’s Office. The numbers have steadily increased since then, reaching a high of 596 lifer inmates released on parole last year.

More than 2,200 inmates who had been serving life sentences in California have been paroled over the past five years, which is more than three times the number of lifers paroled in each of the previous 19 years combined.

Authorities say the higher numbers are primarily the result of a state Supreme Court decision in 2008 that set a new legal standard for the Board of Parole Hearings and the Governor’s Office to use when determining who is suitable for parole. That standard is focused not just on the circumstances of the inmate’s offense, but whether he or she poses a current threat to public safety. If not, the inmate may be released.

Despite speculation to the contrary, Gov. Jerry Brown’s office has stressed that lifer parole grants during his current administration have had nothing to do with a federal court mandate to reduce overcrowding in California’s prisons. “The prison population has no bearing on the governor’s decision to reverse or not act on a parole grant,” said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown....

The spike in paroles came during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term as governor, when the state’s high court established the standard by which a prisoner could be determined suitable for parole. Schwarzenegger, who was governor from 2003 to 2011, reversed more than 1,100 lifer parole grants during his time in office. One of them involved Sandra Davis Lawrence, who killed her lover’s wife in 1971. Her case went to trial in 1983. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The Board of Parole Hearings determined in 2005 that Lawrence was suitable for parole based on several factors, including her efforts to rehabilitate herself in prison, her acceptance of responsibility for her crime and her close ties to her family. But Schwarzenegger found that Lawrence was not a good candidate for release based on “the gravity of the commitment offense,” according to court documents.

A three-judge panel of the state Supreme Court said that’s not good enough, explaining that parole could not be denied simply because the inmate’s offense was “heinous” or “cruel.” The key factor is whether that person remains a danger at the time parole is considered. “There has to be something more than just your crime was particularly atrocious,” said Jennifer Shaffer, executive officer of the Board of Parole Hearings. Denial can’t be based on “something you can’t change,” she said.

When the board denies parole for an inmate, that decision can be appealed, which results in a court-ordered hearing. In 2009, the first full year after the ruling, there were 263 court-ordered hearings spurred by appeals. “That is basically the court saying, ‘You got it wrong,’” she said. Last year, there were only 13 court-ordered hearings, which Shaffer said indicated the board had learned over time how to do a better job of applying the new standard. “The board, as a whole, learned with a lot of guidance from the court,” she said.

The Board of Parole Hearings issued 670 parole grants in 2012, and 590 in 2013, but some of those offenders may still be behind bars. Depending on factors specific to each case, it could take five months to several years for each prisoner to actually be released. State law bars the board from taking prison overcrowding into account when making its decisions. However, Shaffer said, there may be a perception that the issues are related because of the state’s efforts to comply with the federal court order.

August 20, 2014 at 10:15 AM | Permalink


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The continued efforts of both the Governor's office and BPH to portray the increase in parole grants as being due to Lawrence and other cases would be laughable were the stakes not so high. Lawrence was decided in 2008. The actual BPH parole grant rate for hearings that went to decision (not counting postponements, cancelled hearings, etc.) has dramatically increased in the last few years.
2009-16% grant rate
2010-18% "
2011-25% "
2012 & 2013-29% "
2014 (first 1/2)-36% "

For the 1st time in California history, we are at a pace that would see BPH grant parole to over 1,000 lifer inmates this year. This result is not due to a change in the law but due to the change in Governor and those people he appoints to BPH.

Compounding the issue & again showing the true intent of BPH is what happens to those inmates who are denied parole. BPH routinely grants such inmates a Petition to Advance, which accelerates the time to their next parole hearing. BPH also advances these hearings even when the inmate does not request such advance. The families of murder victims are routinely further victimized in having to attend yet another lifer hearing well in advance of what they had expected.

Also not widely known is the multiple other new methods of releasing lifer inmates via the new expanded medical parole program, compassionate release or elder parole for any inmate 60 or older who has served 25 years in CRCR.

Further evidence of their true intent is found in the length of denials. BPH routinely flouts Marsy's Law for those inmates denied parole. By law, BPH is supposed to start at a 15 year denial "unless clear and convincing evidence" shows such is not necessary. Only then are they to consider the lesser alternatives of 10 years, 7, 5 or the minimum of 3. Instead, BPH has turned the law on its head. Thru the first half of this year, in almost 1400 hearings that went to decision, BPH has only given that 15 year denial three times. The prosecutors that handle lifer hearings in California routinely display gallows humor in joking that for BPH "7 is the new 15". Both in 2013 and the first half of 2014, in 85% of those hearings held where BPH denied parole, the inmate received only a 3 or 5 year denial.

Both the Governor's office and BPH are conducting a vast social experiment in releasing tens of thousands of prison inmates via BPH or realignment. Regardless of the arguments as to the ultimate outcome, they owe the voters, past victims and future victims in California the truth about what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Posted by: Cal Prosecutor | Aug 20, 2014 2:52:58 PM

Cal Prosecutor

You are a complete moron. Is your point that there are simply not enough prisoners in California or the United States generally, so we better not take seriously opportunities for parole? Do you simply wear blinders from your occupation, or are you just an imbecilewho stands with cretins and rubes in their inability to apply rational principles to criminal justice? What in the world is wrong with taking parole seriously? Are you sadistic? What is your excuse for your retrograde positions, particularly given your role as a public official who is supposed to be acting in pursuit of justice? You should be fired for idiocy and deregation of duty.

Posted by: Mark | Aug 21, 2014 10:00:21 PM

Boo hoo Ca Pro and cry me a river while your at it. It's way past time that this is happening. Now if only the feds would get a clue we might really get some real reform going in this country.

Posted by: Ed | Aug 22, 2014 7:22:21 PM

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