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SAN FRANCISCO — Nearly 1,400 lifers in California’s prisons have been released over the past three years in a sharp turnaround in a state where murderers and others sentenced to life with the possibility of parole almost never got out.
Since taking office three years ago, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has affirmed 82 percent of parole board decisions, resulting in a record number of inmates with life sentences going free.
Brown’s predecessor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, authorized the release of 557 lifers during his six-year term, sustaining the board at a 27 percent clip. Before that, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis over three years approved the release of two.
This shift in releases under Brown comes as the state grapples with court orders to ease a decadeslong prison crowding crisis that has seen triple-bunking, gyms turned into dorms and inmates shipped out-of-state.
Crime victims and their advocates have said the releases are an injustice to victims and that parolees could pose a danger to the public. More than 80 percent of lifers are in prison for murder; the remaining are mostly rapists and kidnappers.
“This is playing Russian roulette with public safety,” said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance.
The governor’s office said the overcrowding crisis plays no role in the parole decisions. Rather, the governor’s office said, each case is addressed individually and Brown is bound by court orders that require state officials to ease the stringent parole requirements that have dramatically increased the time murderers spend in prison.
Today, an inmate convicted of first-degree murder can expect to serve an average of 27 years — almost twice what it was two decades ago before California became the fourth state to give governors the politically fraught final decision on lifer paroles.
Since then, the number of lifers has grown from 9,000 to 35,000 inmates, representing a quarter of the state prison population. But two seminal California Supreme Court rulings in 2008 have significantly eased tough parole restrictions.
The court ordered prison officials to consider more than the severity of the applicant’s underlying crimes. It ruled that inmates’ records while incarcerated plus their volunteer work should count heavily in assessing early release.
State figures show that since the rulings, the board has granted parole to nearly 3,000 lifers, including 590 last year and a record 670 in 2012. In the three decades prior to the 2008 rulings, only about 1,800 such prisoners were granted parole.
Brown’s office says he is operating under a different legal landscape than previous governors and that he is following court rulings and a 23-year-old state law that gave governors the power to block paroles of lifers who the state board found suitable for release.
A Stanford University study of lifer paroles between 1990 and 2010 found that a murderer had a 6 percent chance of leaving prison alive since governors were given the power to veto board decisions.
Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, the first governor vested with veto power, used it sparingly, though the parole board was approving just a few dozen paroles a year compared with the hundreds the board has been approving in recent years.
Between 1991 and when he left office in January 1999, Wilson approved 115 of the 171, or 67 percent, of the lifers the board found suitable for release.
“If an individual is eligible for parole and the board determines they are no longer a threat, the law says they must be paroled unless there is firm evidence indicating they are still a threat,” Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said.
The few studies of recidivism among released lifersshow they reoffend at much lower rates than other inmates released on parole and none has been convicted of a new murder.
Read More: RGJ.com