For years, members of the State Board of Parole Hearings could, and often would, deny prisoners early release based on their past, focusing solely on the criminal offense rather than whether or not the inmate would pose a safety risk in the future.  However, changes in the law and court rulings over the last decade have given the state parole board more discretion to recommend early release.

With greater flexibility, Gov. Jerry Brown has put the commission of 14 men and women at the front line in his effort to reduce the prison population and to focus more on rehabilitation rather than relying solely on punishment.

Parole boards stay away from politics, and their only role is to neutrally apply the laws, which have changed the way they evaluate which offenders are too dangerous to let out.  The focus is no longer on the severity of the crime, as on whether offenders have come to an understanding about why what they did was wrong.  This is a pendulum swing in California, coming after decades of tough sentencing policies that led to overflowing prisons and a court ordered cap on the state inmate population.

During Gov Brown’s first term in 1977, he shifted sentencing power away from judges and parole boards to prosecutors when he signed a law that set fixed, inflexible prison terms for some crimes.  Proposition 57 returns some of the board’s discretion by allowing more offenders to trim those sentences, moving up their parole hearings and expanding the board’s authority over a greater number of prisoners.

The board now takes up to 400 parole hearings a month including those for older and youth offenders, and prisoners are now more likely granted recommendations for release.  Nearly 820 inmates, or 16 percent of prisoners who had hearings in 2016 were seen as fit for parole that year, compared with 119 or less than 2 percent in 2007.  Just 16 prisoners, or less than 1 percent, of those who had hearings, were deemed fit for parole two decades ago.

The workload for parole commissioners has increased under Proposition 57, which is expected to tri the sentences of 11,500 prisoners over the next four years.  New guidelines, which took effect in July, allow most inmates to earn additional time toward completing their sentences, and to move up their parole hearings by earning credits for good behavior and enrolling in career, rehabilitation and education programs.

They also expand parole consideration to prisoners whose primary sentences are for crimes not designated as “violent” under California law, and who have served the full term for those offenses.  Corrections officials previously offered parole eligibility only for nonviolent inmates who had been charged with a second strike under the state’s three-strikes law, and served 50 percent of their sentences.  Of those nearly 6,200 referrals, 28 percent have been approved for release.

Commissioners attribute the seismic shift to a 2008 decision in the case of Sandra Davis Lawrence, who was declared suitable for parole over former Gov. Schwarzenegger’s objections nearly 24 years after she fatally shot and stabbed her lover with a potato peeler.  In the 4-3 ruling, the California Supreme Court found inmates could not be denied parole based solely on the viciousness or lethality of the crime.  Parole boards must instead take into account whether the defendant would pose a safety risk to the public if released.  That really changed the focus of the hearings from “You did what?  Tell me about the crime,” to “Who where you then?  Who are you today and what’s the difference?”

–Philip Cho


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