Record Number of Prison Lifers Released, but Few Return

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

California has been paroling prison inmates with life sentences at a record rate since Governor Jerry Brown took office and, so far, they don’t seem to be bouncing back.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t cause for alarm in some quarters.

Governor Jerry Brown has had the final say on paroling 1,963 prison inmates serving life sentences. Of those, 33 have ended up back in prison, according to data gathered by the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper called it a “disturbing increase in revocations,” but a recidivism rate of 1.7% sounds pretty low even if the final tally isn’t in.

It sounds especially low compared to the 48.7% recidivism rate for the overall prison population in the years preceding Governor Brown, from 1995-2010, cited in a study (pdf) by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. During that time, only 5 of 860 paroled murderers returned to jail. It called that recidivism rate of 0.6% “miniscule,” and those were the murderers.

In 1988, Proposition 89 empowered governors to reject favorable parole board rulings for murderers with indeterminate sentences ranging up to life, and they did so with gusto. Most of the lifers were such murderers. Democratic Governor Gray Davis nixed 90% of the parole decisions. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed 70%. Parole boards recommended fewer paroles for murderers and the number of lifers in prison grew.    

When Brown took office in 2011, the federal courts were already banging on the state to reduce inhumane overcrowding in its prisons. The California Supreme Court had made it tougher in 2008 to deny parole to inmates considered relatively less dangerous. New laws allowed for the shifting of qualifying low-level offenders to county jails and oversight while Brown and the parole board took aim at the 33,000 parole-eligible lifers among the 165,000 prisoners.

The Stanford report said the few studies that had been done on lifers “all suggest that the recidivism rate—as defined by recommitment for a new offense—is relatively low.” The reasons for the lower rate are varied, but “as a general matter, people age out of crime.” The problem isn’t their propensity for committing crime, so much as finding a place for them to be in society.

Although Brown could rely on statistics to support his parole policy, the Times cited the former Jesuit seminarian’s religious argument. “I have been brought up in the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church and redemption is at the very core of that religion,” he said.

That argument might fare better in the court of public opinion if just one of these lifer parolees commits a particularly heinous, high-profile offense. So far, the examples cited by the Times don’t qualify. One 47-year-old parolee who had found religion in prison but couldn’t find a job outside, shot through the door of his girlfriend’s home, hitting her and earning himself a trip back to the slammer.

A 63-year-old woman who had been sober in prison for 27 years since shooting a fellow doper, but couldn’t cope with the pressures outside, took heroin and called police so she could get back inside. Another had a car accident while drunk; one was accused of choking his girlfriend; and a third tried to have sex with a 14-year-old girl.

Most of the Brown parolees returned to prison had committed drug violations, crimes that have, by and large, recently been the subject of sentence-reduction moves by the state. The federal government has been in charge of California prison healthcare since 2005 and overcrowding since 2009. The takeover followed years of prison horror stories, frequent inmate deaths, severe overcrowding, deficient health care, defiant mismanagement and, in the end, lawsuits.

Prison reform is a work in progress.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

As More Inmates Are Released from Prison, More Parolees Return (by Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times)

Behind California’s Dramatic Increase in Lifers Freed from Prisons (by Matt Levin, KQED)

California "Lifers" Leaving Prison at Record Pace (by Paul Elias, Associated Press)

Governor Brown Tells Court His Last-Minute Prison Plan Is “Ugly” but Will Have to Do (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Prisoners in 2010 (U.S. Department of Justice) (pdf)

Life in Limbo: An Examination of Parole Release for Prisoners Serving Life Sentences with the Possibility of Parole in California (by Robert Weisberg, Debbie A. Mukamal and Jordan D. Segall, Stanford Criminal Justice Center) (pdf)

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