Lifers: Less risky than the average citizen

In the wake of the recent tragedy in Vallejo involving a long-ago paroled life term inmate we are again hearing calls for a reduction in the still small number of life-term prisoners who are granted parole.  The usual unfounded accusations and unsubstantiated allegations of continuing danger from all released lifers are again making the rounds.  So it is perhaps, once again, worth visiting the facts.


And the facts are these: in spite of the recent crime, in spite of a now 70-year-old former lifer and clearly mentally troubled man committing a capital crime, in spite of the heinous and repulsive nature of that crime, the fact remains; he is an anomaly in the paroled lifer population.  Dennis Stanworth, or the offender, in CDCR parlance, was paroled over 20 years ago in 1990.  Since then nearly 1,700 former lifers have gone home, according to CDCR’s figures.  And how many have, again, committed a major crime?  One.


The total number of murders in California since 1990, According to the California Law Enforcement Agency Uniform Crime Reports, was a staggering more than 56,600.


Meaning that since former lifer Stanworth was released over 56,000 other individuals, who were not paroled lifers, committed a murder.  And none of the other roughly 1,699 paroled lifers did so.  As awful as the Stanworth crime was it is not a pattern for judgment of all lifers on parole, not a predictor of how paroled lifers will live their lives.


It simply an affirmation of what advocates, researchers, even law enforcement agencies have long known; the public remains in greater danger from the unknown, ‘average’ citizen behind them in the grocery store line than from a paroled lifer.  There is no justification for paroled lifers in general to be vilified, castigated or accused of being continued dangers on the basis of one man out of 1700 in the last 20 years.  The evidence, the facts, remain.  Lifers are safe to parole and while the parole rate for 2011, at about 11.5% is higher than the just over 2% rate of 1990, the lifer recidivism rate remains the same: virtually nil.  Despite more lifers being released in 2012 than other recent years the crime rate in California has in fact gone down.  Reports of violent crime, specifically murder, assault and rape, all decreased this year, as they have every year since 2008.


We often hear hyperbolic statements from those who oppose all life term inmate parole, who claim that every lifer granted parole, will immediately commit a new crime or prophesize anything from huge increases in the crime rate to blood running in the streets.  None of these events has transpired. Blood is not running in the streets where paroled lifers walk and those paroled lifers are not committing new crimes.  Their recidivism rate, affirmed by figures from the Department of Corrections, remains a barely registering less than 1%.  In fact, the recidivism rate for parolees in general for 2012 seems to have decreased by just over 1%, again, according to CDCR.


It is irresponsible to use fright-inducing rhetoric or exaggerated claims of danger to oppose the release of individuals who have proven themselves rehabilitated and safe through decades of introspection and self-progress.  The law supports rehabilitation and a second chance.


Because we are dealing with humans, on both sides of the equation, emotions cannot be totally removed from the discussion.  The pain and loss of the victims will never go away.  But similarly, the remorse, shame and burden of the crime will never leave a rehabilitated lifer or his family.


We would all do well to remember, as the state struggles with finances and whether or not the courts will require additional action on the prisons population, that paroled lifers settle into unremarkable, average lives and do not, again cause harm to their fellow citizens or communities. —

Ed’s Note:  Vanessa Nelson heads the Life Support Alliance, which advocates for the fair and unbiased consideration of parole dates for inmates sentenced to life.




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