For paroled lifers, release dates may come only with the courts

When a survey commissioned by an inmates-advocacy group asked lifers about their interaction with the state parole board, the results were startling: Of the 300 inmates questioned, eight had been given release dates. Only two of those eight were granted parole by the board. The other six went to the courts, which ordered the board to reconsider the cases, to obtain their dates.

The law provides for certain types of lifers to apply for release dates and grants the authority over those cases to the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH). The board only hears cases involving lifers.

But the head of a prisoners’ rights group called the Life Support Alliance contends the board does not adhere to the law, but rather uses its authority to unfairly deny release dates.

It is an issue that does not draw much public support – incarcerated criminals have few advocates in the outside world, and those sentenced to life have fewer still. Increasingly tougher sentencing and longer periods between parole hearings mean relatively few inmates are actually released, even if they are eligible under the law for dates.

Since California law requires all parole grants to be made by BPH, not the courts, the courts often suggest that BPH hear the prisoners’ cases again. The process can take anywhere from two to nine years and most lifers rely on public defenders to represent them in court. Of California’s 166,000 inmates, roughly 20 percent, or about 33,200 are sentenced to lifers and many of those are eligible to apply for release dates.

“Only two times have I heard of a court case to go above the authority of the parole board for their release,” said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Luis Patino. BPH’s communications are handled by  CDCR.

During the first four months of 2010, the latest period for which complete figures are available, some 180 people were granted release dates and three were actually paroled, CDCR reported. It is not clear how many of those who were paroled required court intervention.

The number of those paroled fluctuates dramatically year-to-year, with the largest number – 193 – during 2009. The smallest number was seven in 1995.

Of the six inmates mentioned in the survey, three of the six were lifers who received a parole date with the help of the courts and eventually had their release dates reversed later by Gov. Schwarzenegger.  

“This is more of a political agenda as opposed to a public safety issue,” Nelson said. “They want to say they are tough on crime.”   

But while an increase in life sentences has lead to overcrowding in prisons, causing the federal government to order California to reduce its prison population, it has also sparked a greater increase in elderly inmates and an increase in prison health-care costs.

Paroled lifers are older than the prison population at large, but it is not clear how, if at all, the federal court order will affect the parole board’s operations. Budget cuts also could affect the board’s operations.

“According to CDCR, the percentage of inmates over the age of 55 has more than doubled over the past decade, from 3 percent (or about 4,900 inmates) in 2000, to 8 percent (or about 13,600 inmates) in 2010,” said a 2010 report on elderly inmates by the Office of the Legislative Analyst.

“It costs two to three times more to incarcerate an elderly inmate, as compared to the average inmate,” the LAO said.

“Some of the reasons why elderly inmates cost more to incarcerate are their increased need for (1) particular health care services (including appropriate facilities to provide such services) and (2) special housing accommodations (such as showers with handrails),” noted the report.  “The growth in elderly inmates is primarily due to various sentencing law changes that have increased the average length of stay in prison, such as the ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out’ law,” stated the report.

Both the LAO and the prison health care receiver, J. Clark Kelso, have recommended that the state allow for the release of elderly and incapacitated lifers who no longer pose a threat to society.

“In the past, our office has recommended early discharge to parole for non-violent and non-serious inmates over the age of 55. This is because research indicates that many of these older inmates represent a relatively low risk of reoffending and show high rates of parole success. We estimate that such a policy would result in annual state savings in the several millions of dollars,” said the LAO report.  

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