Doors closing for lifers -- again
Monday, October 17, 2005
EARLIER THIS YEAR, we commended Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for being willing to grant parole to a greater number of the state's expanding lifer population than his predecessors.
In 2004, he agreed to release 73 lifers recommended for parole by the Board of Prison Terms, recently renamed the Board of Parole Hearings. Although still a tiny fraction of the lifer population, in a single year Schwarzenegger released 12 times more of them than Gov. Gray Davis did during his five years in office. Most had been convicted of first- or second-degree murder decades earlier.
Only 3,168 of California inmates serving life sentences are true lifers. They're the ones sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The other 27,251 are serving "indeterminate" life sentences. That means that after serving a fixed portion of their sentence -- 10, 15, 25 years and so on -- they are supposed to be given a chance of parole by convincing a historically tough-on-crime parole board that they are fully rehabilitated and deserve to be released.
Yet, Schwarzenegger seems to be backing off on his bold attempt to reduce the state's lifer population, which now constitutes 1 in 4 of all inmates serving life sentences in the nation, at a cost of about $1 billion a year to the California taxpayer. Through Sept. 30 of this year, he agreed to release 29 inmates of the 148 forwarded to him by the parole board, almost all of whose members he appointed. At this rate, he will have released just over half as many inmates in 2004 as in 2005.
These are inmates who, over a period of many years, have participated in a range of programs that have forced them to take responsibility for their crimes. More importantly, they have persuaded parole commissioners -- none of whom can be written off as a liberal do-gooder -- that they are no longer dangerous.
By contrast, non-lifer inmates serving lesser sentences, who make up the vast majority of California's overflowing prison population, are released automatically on completion of their sentences, without having to convince anyone that they are prepared for life in mainstream society. That's why two-thirds end up back in prison within three years of being released.
The apparent retreat by Schwarzenegger on releasing inmates who have committed capital crimes is undermining his public declaration that "rehabilitation" should be a major focus of the state's correctional system. In July, he even changed the name of the Department of Corrections to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "Especially at San Quentin, a flagship prison in regards to rehabilitation, you have scores of men coming who, by any set of criteria, are suitable for parole," said Father Steven Barber, the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison.
"We're not lacking in empathy for victims," said Barber. But at some point, the pain inmates have inflicted on victims and their families "has to be balanced against the number of years someone has to serve paying for it," he said. "When the punishment is satisfied, the next step in a healthy society is forgiveness, a kind of absolution."
A spokesperson for Schwarzenegger denied that his decisions regarding lifers have anything to do with politics. "The governor makes parole decisions on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind first and foremost what is in the best interests of public safety," a spokesperson told us. But we suspect that the downward trend might be linked to Schwarzenegger's sliding popularity and the backlash his actions provoked from victims' rights groups allied with the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents prison guards and other prison personnel.
Earlier this year, Crime Victims United of California ran a series of television ads attacking Schwarzenegger for allegedly releasing dangerous criminals. Shortly after the ads were aired, the CCPOA staged an emotional rally on the steps of the state Capitol in April. On every side of the crowd were wall-sized displays of photos of victims of violent crime in California. "Perhaps the governor has listened to some of our concerns," said Harriet Salerno, president of Crime Victims United.
Schwarzenegger's reversal of most of the parole board's recommendations has implications far beyond an individual inmate. It sends a discouraging message to inmates -- that no matter how hard they work at rehabilitating themselves, they're unlikely ever to leave prison. "It becomes harder for us to inspire inmates and to serve public safety from the inside," says Jacques Verduin, executive director of the Insight Prison Project, which offers a range of classes in San Quentin for lifers and other inmates.
The law clearly gives lifers serving indeterminate sentences the chance to earn their release. Instead, says Keith Wattley, a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office in San Francisco, "what we have is a law that holds out the illusion of redemption, but in fact denies people any fair chance of living in a free society."
There is no avoiding the serious, often horrific, nature of the crimes committed by every lifer. But what happened dozens of years ago can't be changed. What can change is the inmate. Until Californians can accept that even a murderer can transform himself or herself, our lifer population will continue to grow, hidden in prisons filled with aging and infirm inmates who no longer threaten our safety.