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Behind California’s Dramatic Increase in Lifers Freed from Prisons

| May 15, 2014
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Options Recovery in Berkeley is among the facilities seeing an increase in the number of lifers on parole needing housing and counseling services. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Options Recovery in Berkeley is among the facilities seeing an increase in the number of lifers on parole needing housing and counseling services. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

By Matt Levin

Amid the specter of rising violent crime rates and “tough on crime” posturing from both Democrats and Republicans, California voters in 1988 approved Proposition 89, amending the state constitution so that governors could directly intervene in the parole process for inmates sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. The measure, which passed with 55 percent of the vote, allowed the governor to rescind parole for offenders who had committed murder — the most common crime for so-called lifers sentenced to unfixed terms like “15 years to life.”

The political calculus for governors, when reviewing parole decisions, was obvious: No governor wanted to stand accused of letting a convicted murderer roam the streets. Gov. Gray Davis reversed positive parole decisions more than 90 percent of the time, while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed 70 percent of the cases that came across his desk. (Gov. Pete Wilson was far more lenient, although he reviewed significantly fewer cases during his two terms in office.)

For most of the 1990s and 2000s, the state Board of Parole Hearings was unlikely to grant parole in the first place to convicted murderers. When combined with the governors’ high reversal rates, the result was a mounting number of inmates serving life terms in state prison.

About one in five inmates in California prisons serves a life sentence with the possibility of parole — the highest percentage of lifers in a state prison population in the country. As of last year, there were more than 26,000 lifers behind bars.

For most of the past two decades, the odds that a lifer would ever set foot outside prison walls were slim. In 2010, a parole-eligible offender who had committed murder stood a 6 percent chance of leaving prison through the conventional parole process.

Three years later, the prospects for lifer parole had improved dramatically, and now lifers are leaving prison in record numbers. In the first 2½ years of the Brown administration, more lifers were released from prison (1,205) than during the previous three administrations combined (1,168).

The unprecedented exodus of lifers in recent years sparks several serious questions for California. What programs are in place to ensure that lifers can make a smooth transition into an outside world radically different from when they were first incarcerated? What are the political implications of this trend in an election year? And perhaps, most importantly, why is this happening now?

Several factors account for the spike in lifer releases in recent years, including landmark court decisions, rising caseloads and shifting attitudes among the Board of Parole Hearings and the Brown administration.

The Lifer Exodus

The number of lifers released from state prison has increased significantly over the past five years, with a dramatic uptick occurring in the last three. The trend began in 2009, a year after a key California Supreme Court ruling limiting the reasons a lifer may be denied parole. From 1991 through July 2013, 2,373 lifers have left California prisons. More than half of that total has occurred in the last 2.5 years.

In 2012, California voters approved Proposition 36, which modified the state’s 1994 three-strikes law. The measure allowed inmates sentenced to life in prison to petition for resentencing and release if their third-strike felony was not serious or violent. While not lifers in the traditional sense (and not included in the chart below), the number of “Prop. 36ers” released since 2012 nearly doubles the count of offenders once facing life in prison who are now set to be released under Gov. Jerry Brown.

Sources: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

*Note: Lifer releases through July 2013. It is important to note that, because of court challenges and the time lag between a parole grant and date of release, individuals paroled under one administration may not be released until a new administration.

Parole Granted More Often

Once a lifer serves the minimum amount of time required by his or her sentence in prison, a parole hearing date is set. A Board of Parole Hearings commissioner then hears the inmate’s case for getting out of prison, basing the decision on whether the inmate poses an unreasonable danger to society upon release. Commissioners are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate Rules Committee.

Starting in 2009, the parole grant rate has increased dramatically. In 2008, the California Supreme Court issued a decision upholding the parole of Sandra Davis Lawrence, an inmate of 24 years convicted of murdering her lover’s wife. The court overturned Schwarzenegger’s reversal of Lawrence’s parole, ruling that decisions on parole grants should be based exclusively on the likelihood a parolee would reoffend. The Lawrence decision, combined with the changing composition of the Board of Parole Hearings since the arrival of Brown, had spurred a marked increase in the number of lifers being paroled.

Sources: BPH Suitability Hearing Summary, CY 1978-2012; BPH Lifer Scheduling and Tracking System; Stanford Criminal Law Center

Notes: Following methodology of Stanford Criminal Law Center, grant rate is calculated by dividing the number of parole grants in a given year by the number of conducted hearings.

Brown Administration Less Likely To Interfere

Because of Prop. 89, California is one of only three states (Maryland and Oklahoma are the other two) where governors have the authority to review and reverse parole board recommendations for lifers. For lifers convicted of first- or second-degree murder, the governor may reverse the parole board’s grant outright. For lifers convicted of other crimes, the governor may send the parole case back to the full board of commissioners for reconsideration.

The higher parole rate for lifers has resulted in a record numbers of parole cases coming across the governor’s desk for review. In his first three years in office, Brown has reviewed nearly 1,678 lifer parole cases, nearly matching the total reviewed by Schwarzenegger over a seven-year period.

Sources: Stanford Criminal Justice Center, Governor’s Office

Note: Reversal rate is the percentage of parole grants for murder offenses reviewed by the governor’s office that the governor reverses. Some parole decisions in November and December 2003 may be incorrectly attributed to Davis because of data limitations. Data through mid-December 2013.

Unlike Govs. Schwarzenegger and Davis, Brown has been much less likely to interfere in the parole recommendations of the board. The reversal rate for Davis never dipped below 90 percent and the reversal rate for Schwarzenegger never dipped below 60 percent, but Brown has reversed less than 20 percent of the cases that have come across his desk.

The Brown administration has argued that the governor’s lower reversal rate stems from a more accurate interpretation of the laws behind parole review. According to the governor’s office, from January 2011 to June 2012, 111 of 158 reversals issued by Schwarzenegger were overturned in the courts.

Comprehensive data on the number of lifers granted parole through the courts is not available.

Lower Risk of Recidivism

While comprehensive data on how lifers fare after their release are limited, most studies point to a very low risk of recidivism. One study found that among 860 murderers paroled in California since 1995, only five individuals have returned to jail for new felonies since being released, and none of them for “life-term” crimes like murder. That stands in stark contrast to the state’s overall prisoner recidivism rate, which has neared 50 percent in recent years.

The reason behind lifers’ presumed lower risk of reoffending is simple: age. Most criminals typically “age out of crime” after they turn 30. The average age of  lifers at the time of their parole hearing was 51.

This story is part of our series, “Second Chance: Lifers and Parole in California.”

Graphics by Olivia Allen-Price

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Category: Law, Politics

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  • Ken Terry

    Thank you for the quality of this report. I now have a better picture of the current parole review process, and no idea at all of the politics of the author of this piece. So very refreshing and encouraging. And thank you for the information. With so much negative press regarding CDCR, and the scare over prisoner releases, we need to know exactly what is happening regarding people proven to be dangerous, but ready for release.

  • baycommuter

    It’s an excellent article, but leaves out one important concept– before the court ruling, parole could be denied based on the heinousness of the original crime. That factor can no longer be considered. Cases of high notoriety–Manson family, Chowchilla schoo bus kidnap– are being affected, and that could cause a public backlash.

  • vannel

    the whole point is that lifers, by virtue of the changes they must undergo to become suitable for parole and the rigorous examination they undergo during the parole process, are no longer dangerous. CDCR’s own figures show lifers do not recidivate, and, as they are within the prison population, they are the most stable cohort of parolees. I attend parole hearings as an observer. The original crime may still be considered as a factor in the decision, and in fact is always addressed. However, it can no longer by the ONLY reason to deny parole. Everyone changes; most of us are not who we were 20, 30, even 40 years ago. And so it is with lifers.