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In California, ‘lifers’ are leaving winning parole at record pace
San Francisco • For decades, California's criminal justice policies ensured that murderers and others sentenced to life, with the possibility of parole, could expect to die in prison. And most of the time, they did.
Since Gov. Jerry Brown assumed office in January 2011, a record number of inmates with life sentences are winning parole. Brown has allowed the release of nearly 1,400 lifers, while going along with the parole board 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 3 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."
Brown said he 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 reversed only two of 232 parole board decisions granting parole between 1999 and 2002 — a rate of 2 percent. 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.
A Stanford University study of lifer paroles between 1990 and 2010 found that a murderer had a 6 percent chance of leaving prison alive since governors were given the power to veto board decisions.
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.
"If an individual is eligible for parole and the board determines they are no longer a threat, the law says they must be paroled unless there is firm evidence indicating they are still a threat," Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said.