« Bureaucrats initially deny Pennsylvania prisoner access to state constitution | Main | The latest news (and helpful background) on the Troy Davis case »

September 18, 2011

New study says life with parole in California really means, on average, about 20 years

This local piece from California reports on an interesting new study of what life sentences really mean in the state.  Here are snippets from the piece, which provides an effective summary of the new study:

Inmates serving life with the possibility of parole in California, mostly convicted murderers, spend an average of 20 years in prison and almost never commit new crimes after being released, a new study concludes.

The report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at the university's law school, issued Thursday, also found that the state Board of Parole Hearings has become increasingly willing to set release dates for "lifers" in the last few years. But those dates have often been vetoed by the governor, under a voter-approved law that has parallels in only three other states, the report said.

Release rates are likely to increase, however, under Gov. Jerry Brown. Through April, Brown had overruled fewer than 20 percent of the parole dates approved by the board, which is composed mostly of former law enforcement officers and prison officials. The comparable veto rates were 70 percent for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and 98 percent for Gov. Gray Davis.

The study also found that prisoners who are denied parole must wait an average of five years for their next hearing, up from two years in 2007, mostly because of a new, voter-approved victims' rights law. The board is less likely to approve release at an inmate's first hearing than at future hearings, the study found, and is less than half as likely to grant parole when a victim's relative attends the hearing.

The report also cited a recent study of 860 convicted murderers paroled in California since 1995. Only five had been sentenced for new felonies since then, none for crimes carrying life sentences, the study said.

The parole board, appointed by the governor, has no authority over most prisoners, who serve fixed terms based on their crimes. But it decides when lifers - those convicted of murder, attempted murder and a few other crimes, such as aggravated cases of kidnapping and rape - are suitable for release.

Lifers constitute one-fifth of the state's prisoners, the highest percentage of any state and an increase from 8 percent of the inmates in 1990, the study said. In addition, California has 4,000 prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole and more than 700 sentenced to death, all for specific categories of murder, such as murder of a police officer, multiple murders and murder during a rape, robbery or burglary....

The parole board now approves release in 18 percent of the hearings, three times the approval rate in 2007, the study said. It said one reason was a 2008 state Supreme Court ruling that required parole decisions to be based on the risk to public safety and not, in most cases, solely on the facts of the crime.

The study issued by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center is titled "Life in Limbo: An Examination of Parole Release for Prisoners Serving Life Sentences with the Possibility of Parole in California." The full 28-page study is available at this link.

September 18, 2011 at 06:38 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference New study says life with parole in California really means, on average, about 20 years:


I was confused by the language regarding the 20 year number, which appears in the title of the blog entry, as well as in the first sentence of the study excerpt. The language doesn't make it clear whether this number includes people who never got released on parole.

It turns out that these people are omitted. This clarification appears on page 15 of the study (page 17 if you're counting by pdf page numbers):

"Of approximately 1,000 lifers who had been sentenced for murder and were released from custody during the 20-year period from 1990-2010, the average number of years served was about 20 years."

I suppose this is relevant to the rest of the excerpted sentence: "... and almost never commit new crimes after being released". After all, maybe the parole board is making good decisions! (The paper does make this explicit elsewhere: "While data is limited, interim information suggests that the incidence of commission of serious crimes by recently released lifers has been minuscule, and as compared to the larger inmate population, recidivism risk—at least among those deemed suitable for release by both the Board and the Governor—is minimal." [page 4])

Posted by: Andrew Gradman | Sep 19, 2011 2:38:42 AM

Andrew, how can we conclude that on lifers the parole board is making "good decisions" when their decisions on other prisoners lead to among the highest recidivism rates in the country? Is it really likely they're making "good decisions" on this one, narrow category of offenders and screwing up all the others? Or is it more likely to be differences in the cohort of offenders that accounts for low recidivism?

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Sep 19, 2011 8:41:22 AM

What Andrew is pointing out is that the title of this post is inaccurate. Twenty years is the average term served by the extremely small number of lifers (1,000) who were paroled between 1990 and 2010. That leaves at least 29,000 lifers during that period who weren't paroled. So between 1990 and 2010, 1-out-of-30 lifers served twenty years and 29-out-of-30 lifers served/are serving life without parole.

Which means:


Posted by: James | Sep 19, 2011 3:23:01 PM

@Grits - the Parole Board in California only decides on release for lifers. As I understand it the high recidivism rate in California is mainly for determinately sentenced offenders. They don't go before the Parole Board; they are automatically released when their judicially imposed term is up (less good time credits, which are more or less automatic as well).

Posted by: Sara Mayeux | Sep 20, 2011 12:43:41 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB