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Image: Rupert Ganzer
California has more prisoners serving life than any other state.
Life Support Alliance (LSA) has identified a group of prisoners – the life-term prisoners – who have increasingly become subject to Kafkaesque procedure in California justice. LSA advocates on behalf of these life-term prisoners and educates the public on the invisible cycle of parole denial.
There are four types of sentences handed down to California prisoners; the death sentence (execution), life without parole (never released), determinate sentences of a fixed period (3,5,10 years for example), and indeterminate sentences (5 to life, 12 to life, 20 to life). It is in this last category that life-term prisoners fall. If they are ever to win release they must serve the minimum term first and then convince a parole board that they are suitable for release. Suitability means not being a public threat.
In California there are 22,000 men and women on indeterminate term-life sentences. The average number of years served by a prisoner serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole is 20 years. For all these prisoners release is dependent on the Board of Parole Hearings.
GAIL BROWN ON THE CALIFORNIA PAROLE SYSTEM
The Board of Parole Hearings is not a neutral group however, and it is susceptible to political influence. New appointees to the board are made by the Governor. During our conversation, Gail Brown, Founder of Life Support Alliance talks about how the parole grant rate under Governor Gray Davis was 0%. During the tenures of Schwarzenegger and current Governor Jerry Brown, the figure rose as high as 20% and now sits at 18%. This increase is partly due to a more sensible approach to criminal justice, but also down to the economic crunch and to the fact that the governorship is likely to be Brown’s final job in public office; he doesn’t have to bow to powerful *tough-on-crime* lobby groups. Incidentally, California is one of only 3 states in which the governor has veto power over the board of parole hearings.
We should listen to Gail Brown. Her proposals will save every CA taxpayer money, forge progressive and forgiving attitudes, and force a return to legal procedure that means thousands of prisoners won’t be held in limbo, or worse, denied release because politicians don’t want to have prisoners – perceived as public safety hazards – released on their watch. (For a lesson in the damage a discharged prisoner can do in the worst circumstances to a political career, read up on Willie Horton and Al Gore.)
It also makes good common sense to release term-life prisoners. They are aging or aged. Costs to house an adult prisoner nearly double from $50,000/year to $98,000 when a prisoner turns 55. When they pass the age of 65, the cost triples to $150,000. The majority of these costs are medical care (which in CA was ruled as cruel and unusual in any case.)
As well as reducing costs, Gail Brown points out that aged prisoners have grown out of transgressive behaviours and are statistically the safest population to release.
In December 2011, the Stanford Criminal Justice Center released the first rigorous empirical study of prisoners serving life sentences with the possibility of parole in California called, “Life After Limbo: An Examination of Parole Release for Prisoners Serving Life Sentences with the Possibility of Parole in California.”
The report found that California has laws enacted through the three branches of government often contradict one another.
In 2008, Marsy’s Law (also known as Proposition 9) gave victims additional rights to participate in parole hearings and the law greatly extended the time between hearings once a lifer is denied parole by the Board.
That same year, the California Supreme Court ruled in the Lawrence Decision that while the commitment offense is probative, in and of itself, it cannot serve as the sole reason to deny parole. The relevant standard for the Board to use in considering whether to release an inmate serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole is whether the prisoner is a current threat to public safety.
To further complicate matters, newly proposed legislation – SB 391 – would authorize the Parole Board to base its decision to deny parole solely upon the circumstances of the commitment offense. That would directly overrule the California Supreme Court opinion.
THE LAST WORD
More than statistics, costs and legal definitions, Brown wants us to heal as a society and look toward restorative justice and not rely on state agencies to enact vengeance within unseen penal institutions. As much as we are all potential victims of crime, we are all potential activists against the cycles of punitive violence that persist in broken prison systems.