Opinion: California can’t afford vengeance as a public policy

How I wish news organizations would revert to the professional ways of thoroughly vetting a story before rushing to publish tabloid-style cant. Case in point: a recent account in the Sacramento Bee on Gov. Brown’s affirming the release of “more killers” than his predecessors. 

Wow, great headline.  Sounds dramatic, important and even a little scary. 

It’s also incomplete.

The true part: Brown has indeed declined to review most life-term inmates’ parole grants given by the Board of Parole Hearings. That doesn’t mean he’s done a wholesale release of “killers.” And you may be interested to know that many life term prisoners are in prison for non-lethal offenses.  

Brown’s office reviews each parole grant, looking for something missed by the parole commissioners in their grueling, often hours-long review of a lifer’s crime, circumstances and suitability at a parole hearing. 

Keep in mind, most of the parole commissioners come from a law enforcement-connected background, are largely conservative and none could be described a flaming liberal on law and order.  If this review finds the parole board did their due diligence and their job, laws were followed and the parole grant duly given, the Governor allows the grant to proceed. 

If there is something that catches the Governor’s eye, he can rescind the grant of parole. He’s done this before and it’s something his immediate predecessor did about 80 percent of the time. 

And what then? 

Usually, the prisoner files a court action on the governor’s reversal and this action takes its path through the courts, racking up expenses in court costs, legal fees and continued incarceration time for one, two or even three years.  And the outcome? 

Under the Schwarzenegger regime, about 80 percent of his reversals were eventually overturned by the courts, reinstating the parole of the prisoner, but only after considerable costs in both monetary and human terms.  And to what end?  Pretty much nothing.  No great increase in public safety, no fanfare, just a lot of money wasted.

Want more truth? 

Not all parolees are the same.  Until the recent realignment changes, nearly everyone who went into state prison, whether for a life term crime or for a determinate sentence, was placed on parole when released.

The vast majority of these parolees was never lifers, never had to go before a board to prove they were no longer a threat to public safety and never had to bother with rehabilitation. They were simply released on parole at the end of their sentence.  These are the individuals the media so often headlines in the “Parolee commits XYZ” stories.  The fact that these re-offending individuals were never life term prisoners is never mentioned.

California’s present recidivism rate for all prisoners released on parole hovers around 70 percent, pretty bad for a state agency that claims “rehabilitation” as a goal. 

And what about the recidivism rate for those life-term prisoners who manage to rehabilitate themselves, turn their lives around and prove to both the parole board and the governor that they are changed and no longer a danger?  It’s less than 1 percent!

That’s right, less than 1 percent.

According to CDCR itself, of the life-term inmates convicted only of first- or second-degree murder and paroled over the last 21 years, only a handful have returned to prisoned and none for a life offense. 

The most serious crime, committed by only 3 persons, was robbery.  That’s a recidivism rate of just over half of a single percentage point, or .058.

The average citizen is in more danger from the stranger standing behind them in the grocery store line than from a paroled lifer. 

And if you want to talk money, here’s something to think about.  Most lifers are aging, with more and more passing the 50-60 year age mark every year.  At this point the cost to incarcerate them skyrockets, from about $51,000 per year for an average inmate, to around $150,000 per year per inmate.

So what could the state do with an extra $100,000 per year times, say, 10,000 people?  The number of lifers in the California prison system is around 24,000; assuming only half of them are paroled, that’s a huge monetary savings at demonstrably no cost to public safety.

What Gov. Brown is doing is following the law.  He is allowing the parole board, charged with making the decision on whether to release a life term inmate or not, to do their job.  He is doing his job in reviewing their decision, but at the same time, having the confidence that the parole commissioners are doing theirs.  And the statistics and facts prove him right. 

Since Brown stopped reversing most lifer parole dates and allowed these men and women a second chance at contributing to society the crime rate has not shot upward, blood is not running in the streets and the cost of the prison system is coming down. 

The Governor knows what the rest of society must learn: We can no longer afford vengeance as public policy.  For victims there will never be enough punishment.  But government must look at the overall picture and do what is best for society as a whole.  And often that means a carefully considered decision to give someone a second chance.

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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