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San Quentin State Prison, home to some 1,500 lifers”

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times presents an ominous outlook on the increased number of lifers — mostly people convicted of homicide — paroled under Gov. Brown, highlighting the supposedly disturbing” consequences of allowing the return of such people to society. But taken in context, the data tell a far different story: Nearly everyone paroled after serving a life sentence has safely returned to the community. 

Unlike his recent predecessors, Brown is not overruling en masse the determinations by his parole board that some people who have committed homicide can safely return to society. The board (which is dominated by law enforcement) does not make these decisions lightly. Commissioners review extensive documentation and stacks of records, including recommendations from prison staff, psychological evaluations, records of disciplinary infractions, statements from victims and their families, written commitments from people who will house, employ, and otherwise support the individual upon his or her release, and hours of interviews with the lifers themselves. On average, they grant parole just 10 to 15 percent of the time (and that’s a large improvement from just a couple years ago). 

Yet once the board has come to the decision that a person does not pose a risk to the community, a special feature” of the California justice system kicks in: The governor can disregard his board’s determination and order the person to remain in prison. Only three other states permit an elected official to have the final say on a decision so politically fraught as allowing convicted murderers to go free.” While Brown is not acting as harshly as his predecessors — Schwarzenegger overturned about 80 percent of parole decisions, and Davis blocked nearly every one — he still defies his board too often. The decision should not be Brown’s to make in the first place, as I have argued before.

After all, what happens when people who have committed homicide and spent decades in prison are released? Not much. Of the 860 people paroled after serving life sentences between 1995 and 2010, only five — half of one percent — returned to prison for new felony offenses. Since 2011, Brown has allowed 1,963 people to parole, which the Times notes is more inmates than four governors released in the 27 years before he was elected.” But of these, only 33 (1.7 percent) returned to custody, mostly for technical violations” of parole (i.e., not new felonies). 

According to records cited by the Times, the majority were simply caught using drugs.” A supplemental feature lists more of the so-called offenses” that resulted in these 33 people being sent back to prison, including buying beer,” public use of alcohol,” unpermitted travel to visit family,” possessing a banned iPhone,” and missing meetings with parole officers. Hardly cause for alarm — unless that alarm sounds for the tremendous human, social, and financial costs of locking people up for legal acts. 

California has around 25,000 lifers in prison with the possibility of parole. Seventy-seven percent have been classified by the CDCR as presenting a low risk” of recidivism (the lowest category possible), and some 9,000 of those have already passed their minimum eligible parole dates. These are people who deserve an opportunity to begin rebuilding their lives outside prison walls — and who, the data show, would do so without any risk to public safety.

There are many ways Brown can reduce the population of his prisons: comprehensive and retroactive sentencing reform, restoration of good time credits (including for people convicted of violent offenses), and expansion of elderly parole, to name a few. This one is perhaps the easiest: Let the parole board do its job.