The longest wait
Friday, July 1, 2005
LOCK 'EM up and throw away the key.
That has been the ethos that has contributed to 27,251 inmates being incarcerated for "life" in California prisons -- a quarter of all inmates serving life terms across the United States.
Beginning today, California's Department of Corrections will undergo a dramatic shift in approach, at least on paper. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will change the name of the agency responsible for 163,939 inmates and 113,768 parolees to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The challenge will be to make sure this new approach extends to all prisoners -- including "lifers" who are eligible for parole and can make a convincing case that they have been rehabilitated.
The notion of "rehabilitation" of inmates convicted of serious crimes -- including murder, rape, robbery -- may seem absurd or even abhorrent to some Californians. But one of the paradoxes of this state's correctional system is that many inmates serving life terms are seizing the opportunity to participate in effective rehabilitation programs that are available.
In other words, some of the people best prepared for a return to society are the very inmates that many politicians have been the most reluctant to let out on parole.
There is good reason to be cautious about considering the release of inmates convicted of serious, often violent, crimes. But there is also good reason to reassess the no-release dogma that prevailed under Gov. Gray Davis.
When these "lifers" were sentenced, the courts did not necessarily intend that most would actually spend their lives behind bars. Over 24,000 were given "indeterminate" life sentences -- such as 10 years to life, 15 years to life, or 20 years to life. After they had served the fixed portion of their sentences, they were supposed to have a chance to prove they had been rehabilitated and were ready to be released back into society.
Yet most remain behind bars for years, sometimes for decades, after they have served the mandatory portion of their sentence.
Several thousand have been convicted under California's "three strikes" law -- which mandates an indeterminate life sentence even if the third "strike" is a nonviolent felony.
Only 3,168 "lifers" have been sentenced to life without the possibility of the parole. They have no chance of being released -- nor should they. The remainder of the "lifer" population places a huge strain on the state's prison facilities, which are filled to double their capacity. They are also draining the state's treasury.
To house the "lifer" population, each year California spends at least $31, 000 per inmate, at an annual cost of nearly $1 billion out of a total annual adult correctional budget of close to $6 billion. As they get older, their incarceration will become far more expensive because of increased health-care costs.
Beyond costs and logistics, their continued incarceration raises difficult moral and ethical questions. Should we continue to detain inmates who have committed violent -- often shocking -- crimes, even when prison counselors and others who have worked with them closely testify that they are fully rehabilitated and no longer present a danger to society? At what point are we able to forgive individuals for crimes committed decades before, often in a moment of "fatal peril," when they were in their teens or early 20s?
For Gray Davis, the answer was clear: He once said the only way a convicted murderer would leave prison would be in a pine box. During his five years as governor, he reluctantly agreed to release only six "lifers."
During the eight years he was the state's chief executive, Gov. Pete Wilson released only 117 -- an average of fewer than 20 per year.
Schwarzenegger, by contrast, has released 96 lifers on parole since taking office -- 77 in 2004 alone. His decision to break with his predecessors represents a courageous political act. He has provoked the scorn of the union representing prison guards as well as some victim's-rights groups -- just months after being embraced by theem for almost single-handedly defeating an initiative to lessen the impact of California's "three strikes" law.
But Schwarzenegger is taking less of a risk than it might appear. That's because all have had to persuade a famously skeptical parole board that they are no longer a danger to society and that they have been fully rehabilitated.
By contrast, under the state's 1977 Uniform Sentencing Law, inmates serving time for lesser crimes receive a fixed-term sentence, with time off for good behavior. Once they have served their terms, they must, by law, be released. They don't have to appear before a parole board to show they have acquired any vocational skills, learned how to control their emotions or impulses, or even taken responsibility for their crimes.
The available data, though sparse, show the recidivism rate for "lifers" is far lower than that of shorter-term inmates. Clearly, inmates who represent a likely danger to society should not be released. But many of these aging, graying inmates bear little resemblance to the out-of-control youth or young adults who committed these crimes. Many have examined every aspect of their crimes. They have acquired valuable vocational skills and have close family ties that will help keep them out of trouble outside the prison gates.
The Board of Prison Terms, the official name for California's parole board, has been willing to recommend that only a tiny percentage of those eligible for parole be released. Last year, for example, it held 2,713 "suitability hearings" for "lifers" with indeterminate sentences. Of those, 2, 614 were denied parole, while 199 were recommended for release.
So far this year, the board, made up of nine commissioners appointed by the governor, has recommended that 75 "lifers" be granted parole. Of those, Schwarzenegger has agreed to release 17. That's .0007 of inmates serving indeterminate life sentences.
Both the board and the governor, who can accept or reject the board's recommendations, must be more willing to look at the progress an inmate has made toward rehabilitation than they have in the past.
Schwarzenegger, to his credit, has shown a willingness to take on this difficult issue.
The California Board of Prison Terms ( www.bpt.ca.gov ) offers information on the composition of the board and the criteria for releasing "lifers."
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ( www.corr.ca.gov ) for information on the state's prison system and population.
The Insight Prison Project, offers information on a range of programs for "lifers" and "non-lifers," including the Katargeo Group at San Quentin State Prison ( www.insightprisonproject.org ).
The Sentencing Project (www.sentencingproject.org) includes on its Web site a national profile of life sentences, "The Meaning of 'Life': Long Prison Sentences in Context."
3 governors' records on releasing inmates serving 'life' sentences
After the Board of Prison Terms recommends an inmate
be released on
Source: California Board of Prison Terms
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