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March 27, 2019

Noticing Gov Newsom's not-so-progressive approach to parole so far

The Los Angeles Times has this notable new piece which reports on the notable reality that it seems only the serious offenders sent by juries to California's death row are getting grace from California's new governor.  The piece, headlined "Newsom seeks to halt parole for some murderers and serious offenders. What does that signal?," includes these passages:

Trenton Veches liked to suck on the toes of young boys and has spent the last 16 years in prison because of it. A jury convicted him in 2003 at age 32 in a case that shook Newport Beach, where he was a supervisor in the city’s youth recreation program. He was tried on multiple counts of child molestation and sentenced to two concurrent life terms after being caught in the act by a co-worker.

Last week — despite an attempt by Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop it — Veches won parole.

Veches’ impending release is one of 33 cases in which Newsom, since taking office, has attempted to stop a serious offender from receiving parole, according to documents provided by the governor’s office. Parole hearings usually take place in front of a two-person panel. The governor can’t revoke these paroles but can ask the state’s 15-member Board of Parole Hearings to review them.

Newsom also has stopped 46 paroles for murderers, a different process that allows him to act unilaterally through executive powers. Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for Newsom, said, “Each case that comes before the governor is evaluated on its own merits and receives careful review and consideration.”

The interventions mark a steep increase from those undertaken by former Gov. Jerry Brown and are a departure from the progressive criminal justice reform stance that Newsom has championed, including his recent moratorium on the death penalty.

In 2018, the parole board reviewed seven cases at Brown’s request and Brown reversed 28 paroles for murderers, a steady decline from his peak of 133 reversals in 2014. Newsom has more than quadrupled requests for reviews of serious offenders in three months in office and is on pace to match Brown’s peak year of reversals for murder cases.

Newsom’s spike in parole interventions has some wondering whether he is trying to keep more serious offenders in prison or just taking a cautious approach to a dicey issue. “The governor’s reversal rate [on paroles] has dramatically increased over Brown,” said Charles Carbone, Veches’ attorney and a specialist in parole hearings. “The question now becomes: Is it a matter of a new policy?”

Newsom’s active role in opposing releases might point to a growing political problem for him within the state’s parole system: rising numbers of offenders eligible for release because of criminal justice reforms, including Proposition 57, a measure championed by Brown. More so than any of his predecessors, California’s new governor likely will be responsible for overseeing tough decisions on whether certain sex offenders and criminals with multiple felonies should be freed.

California holds between 4,000 to 5,300 parole hearings each year, according to a recent legislative report. Next year, that is expected to jump to 7,200 and rise again to 8,300 the following year — changes wrought by Proposition 57 alone could add up to 4,000 new hearings, according to Michael Romano, head of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School. There are currently 34,136 California inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “There is an incredible backlog and bottleneck,” Romano said....

While some governors, such as Gray Davis, took a hard line on parole, Brown and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger allowed an increase in releases, said Keith Wattley, executive director of an Oakland legal nonprofit that specializes in prisoners’ rights. Brown dramatically decreased the number of both reversed murder paroles and non-murder cases flagged by the governor’s office during his terms.

Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, said Newsom is keenly aware of the potential for political danger after his controversial decision to halt executions. Many criticized Newsom for ignoring the will of California voters, who rejected a ballot measure to abolish the death penalty and approved another to speed up executions in 2016. “The thing that keeps governors awake at night is the prospect that a bad person will be let out and go on to commit heinous crimes and the governor will be held responsible,” Pitney said. “After the death penalty reprieves, he is very sensitive to that risk and does not want to be the next Michael Dukakis.”...

Newsom’s efforts to prevent the release of criminals poses little downside, Pitney said. “I think he can make a case that he’s being consistent: We should be careful of releasing prisoners and careful about the punishments we impose,” Pitney said.

Romano said some of the interventions might be leftovers from Brown’s time in office and are too few in number to judge. Wattley, head of the nonprofit that specializes in prisoners’ rights, agreed it was “too early to know … how alarmed to be,” but the possibility of parole raised by Brown gave inmates hope and created an incentive for rehabilitation. Newsom’s interventions, if ongoing, could undo that, he said.  Wattley said paroling serious offenders is necessary to decrease the number of people incarcerated, a key component of criminal justice reform.  “You can’t do that unless you find a pathway home for people convicted of serious or violent crimes,” he said.

Sex offenders in particular are politically perilous candidates for parole.  Proposition 57 backers promised it wouldn’t free sex offenders, and state prison officials wrote rules for its implementation that excluded them. But a state court ruled last year that the wording of Proposition 57 didn’t give leeway for a blanket prohibition, particularly for inmates with past sex offenses currently incarcerated on other charges.

Fifteen of the cases Newsom has flagged for reconsideration involve inmates with current or past sex offenses, according to the CDCR.  Sonya Shah, executive director of a Bay Area nonprofit that works with sex offenders, said sex crimes are left out of criminal justice reform and often lumped together in public perception despite encompassing a “spectrum of harms” to victims.  “We are not willing to have the nuance with sexual crime,” Shah said. “The way [sex offenders] are painted, they are monsters.”

March 27, 2019 at 09:29 AM | Permalink

Comments

Professor,

It is interesting that the LAT authors sought comment from two notable inmate attorneys, a pair of academics (one of who is notorious for his views on getting inmates out of prison and an advocate for sex offenders. While they did quote a family member of a crime victim, they failed to seek out the thoughts of prosecutors or victims' rights advocates. Some other viewpoints would have assisted in a better discussion of this issue. Most notably, there might have been a discussion of the number of times that Governor Newsom has accepted the decisions of the Board of Parole Hearings to parole an inmate convicted of a violent crime.

The prosecutors who work in the parole field have been very pleasantly surprised by the Governor's willingness to question some of the decisions of the Board of Parole Hearings. Something which stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, who only seemed to reverse BPH when it came to notorious homicides or DV homicides. While we still disagree with his refusal to follow the law on the death penalty, we have hope that our views won't be treated with disdain by the new Governor. Again, as opposed to his predecessor...

As to the central point of the article, I am amazed how the term "progressive" is being bandied about. Is it somehow unprogressive to reverse a BPH decision and say they failed to pay sufficient attention to an inmate's lack of insight as to his/her violent crime? On the other hand, why is letting inmates who have committed violent crimes out of prison somehow considered progressive?

P.S. The Governor of California only has the power to unilaterally reverse/modify the decision of BPH as to inmates convicted of murder. if a parole grant is reversed, the inmate then gets a new lifer parole hearing in a year. In non-homicide cases the Governor can only request that the entire Board review the decision. See Cal. Penal Code sections 3041.1 & 3041.2. In fact, at their March meeting, BPH agreed with the Governor and scheduled rescission hearings for six non-homicide inmates. In another 10, BPH voted to affirm the panels' decision. One might ask, which would be considered the "progressive" decision?

Posted by: Cal. Prosecutor | Mar 27, 2019 12:46:10 PM

Fair points, Cal. Prosecutor. I generally think progressives want fewer people incarcerated --- indeed, some want to abolish prisons altogether (https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/08/15/abolish-prisons-is-the-new-abolish-ice-219361) --- and so I associate the decision to keep people in prison with being "not-so-progressive." That said, "progressive" is a loose label and can certainly be in the eye of the beholder. Would you call the execution moratorium "progressive"?

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 27, 2019 3:10:21 PM

I hope you will permit the observation that your Q should be asked of someone like Kermit Alexander or Marc Klaas

https://www.sfgate.com/opinion/saunders/article/Kermit-Alexander-s-life-sentence-6630535.php

Posted by: Cal. Prosecutor | Mar 27, 2019 4:16:07 PM

Kermit Alexander and Marc Klaas are both encouraged to engage here to provide their answers. But you seemed to have a feel for how the term "progressive" should be bandied about, Cal. Prosecutor. Ergo, while we await word from Kermit Alexander and Marc Klaas, I am still interested in hearing whether you would call the execution moratorium "progressive."

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 27, 2019 5:55:10 PM

There are all sorts of sex offenders, a case by case is the only fair & just way to determine the extent of guilt on non-violent sex "crimes". Take the case of the elementary school boy that kissed a girl and was put on the sex offender list (only incompetence would do this). Children learn by example and must be taught right from wrong (socially). This sex offender list would be mighty long if the real sex offenders were on it. It has ruined many a good persons life.

Posted by: LC in Texas | Mar 29, 2019 9:08:49 PM

I enjoyed reading this discussion representing varying viewpoints, but feel that some key and very relevant issues are omitted. I believe that California is one of only 4 or 5 states who give the Governor the power to overrule the State Parole Board. Why should a political figure have that power? Should we not have sufficient confidence in our Parole Board to allow their decisions to be final? Further, the parole hearing lasts on average about 3 hours and allows the commissioners to see the inmate, to ask difficult questions of the inmate, and to determine if the inmate has been rehabilitated and is ready to be discharged. What does the Governor base his decision on? How often is the Governor's decision a political one? Should we be determining an inmate's freedom based on political considerations? Few people in California know that the Governor has this power. Nobody I have spoken to agrees that this makes good sense.

What a high percentage of Californians do believe is that prison is for rehabilitation and that people deserve to be forgiven for their mistakes. Isn't the Parole Board being asked to evaluate the person sitting in front of them to determine if that person is rehabilitated and likely to succeed on the outside? Certainly the crime(s) that were committed need to be taken into account, but how the inmate has changed, who that person is today, and how likely the person is to ever commit a crime after being discharged is what an overwhelming majority of Californians want the Parole Board and the Governor to evaluate in making this important decision about a person's freedom.

I have met a good number of inmates in my visits to San Quentin and I can say that most of them were very different from the young men who did something very dumb when they were an impressionable and immature 22 year-old. In almost all cases, these guys were ready to return to society after serving 15 or 25 or 35 years. Yet the very cautious Parole Board was not willing to release them. This is wrong. I believe we need considerably more than 15 commissioners on the Parole Board so that we can significantly increase the number of inmates being discharged. And California needs to increase spending on mental health services in prison and outside, as well as reentry services.

I am a Wealth Manager who is concerned about the waste of lives, resources, and money that the present prison system encompasses. There are better ways to run prisons for far less money and California should be exploring those ways. As a money manager, does this more logical, fiscally responsible, and humane approach make me a progressive?

Malcolm

Posted by: Malcolm Gissen | Apr 23, 2019 3:24:09 PM

I am a former lifer who served 27 years, I was incarcerated at the age if 16 and know both sides of this debate very well having only been out for a month and a half. It took a lot of hard work, growth, maturity, insight, remorse, empathy,and an understanding of the ripple effect that my poor choices had on all the victims I created, only through that understanding, and the ability to articulate that to the parole board was I found to pose no threat to society and I'm grateful to the commissioners for seeing the man I am today and for Govenor Newsom for allowing my release. There are thousands like me who regret the poor choices they made 20, 30 or maybe even more years ago, and I say because in our efforts to rehabilitate we learn that we didn't make mistakes we made choices and how important cognative restructuring is to the process and those who do that work deserve a fair non bias non politically motivated decision, however there are those that are just bad people who are apathetic to the harms they have caused and don't necessarily deserve that chance. I'm grateful that I have been given a second chance

Posted by: Frank DeLeo | May 12, 2019 10:47:53 PM

Can you tell me where I can write to gov. Newsom.my mother recently had a parole hearing thanks to Jerry brown her parole ws granted but there is a 120day period then 30 period for the gov to grant or overturn.i need this overturned!!! She was a lifer til brown commuted her sentence.

Posted by: Marie witkin | Jun 27, 2019 11:39:47 PM

I think Newsoms reversing paroles as disgusting. If you get parole there should never be any question of it being reversed

Posted by: Thomas Hamilton | Jun 3, 2020 3:43:23 AM

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