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Charles Manson and the politics of fear

Forty-three years ago, Charles Manson and his “Family” of disciples brutally murdered nine innocent people in Los Angeles. The killings are among the most notorious in the nation’s history, and continue to haunt the public imagination.

By March 3, Gov. Jerry Brown will decide whether to release one of the Family members, Bruce Davis, from prison. The state’s Board of Parole Hearings has already determined that Davis, who prison officials say has been a “model inmate,” does not pose a risk to public safety and is suitable for parole. Yet the possibility of releasing this infamous man into the community has many in an uproar. Brown can now either approve the determination of his Board, or he can cater to the public’s ungrounded fears and keep Davis incarcerated.

Davis, who participated in two of the Manson Family murders (though was the killer in neither), is now a 70-year-old born-again Christian with a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in religion. He ministers to other inmates and married a woman he met through the prison ministry. According to the findings of the Board, he has not had a disciplinary write-up since 1980, has had 10 years of positive psychological evaluations, and participated in all available education, vocation, and self-help programs.

According to the California penal code, when an inmate reaches his or her minimum parole eligibility date, parole is presumed unless the inmate poses an “unreasonable risk of danger to society.” By all measures — his age, time served, behavior over the past 40 years — Davis should be a strong candidate for parole. Yet Davis has been denied parole 25 times. The Board finally gave him a parole date in 2010, but then-Gov. Schwarzenegger took it away. In October 2012, the Board again found Davis suitable for parole, and his release is now in Brown’s hands.

If Brown allows the Board’s decision to stand, Davis will be the first Manson follower involved in the 1969 slayings to be released (with the exception of his codefendant, who was paroled in 1985 after leading police to one of the bodies). “Family” members Leslie Van HoutenPatricia Krenwinkel, and Charles Watson have been denied parole 19, 13, and 14 times, respectively, despite prison officials declaring that all three are model prisoners who have turned their lives around. Susan Atkins, another Manson follower, died in 2009 from brain cancer a month after the Board denied her request for “compassionate release,” which allows terminally-ill inmates to die surrounded by loved ones. During the hearing, Atkins lay paralyzed in a hospital gurney, incapable of even using a wheelchair — hardly a threat to public safety.

The prospects for parole are hardly better for inmates committed of less notorious crimes: As detailed in a 2011 report by criminologists at Stanford University, “a lifer’s prospect of actually being granted parole by the Board and not having the decision reversed by the Governor is — and always has been — slim.”

Because of the public’s deep and powerful fear of violent crime, it may indeed be politically unwise to release anyone who has committed a particularly heinous murder, regardless of the actual risk to public safety. But that’s precisely why elected officials should not make parole decisions. The Governor’s ability to reverse the Board’s decisions puts the liberty of inmates at the mercy of political whims and emotionally-charged public sentiment.

Manson’s followers have each already served more than 40 years in prison — far longer than the amount of time served by murderers in most of the world. Now that the Board has twice found Davis suitable for parole based on objective public safety standards, Brown should do the same.

Keywords: incarceration, media, parole, public safety, reentry

Posted in Blog, Sentencing, Political Landscape

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