Opponents of the death penalty — myself among them — argue that life sentences are enough to keep society safe. What happens when life sentences … aren’t? The Associated Press reports that paroles of lifers in California have skyrocketed under Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration:
Since Gov. Jerry Brown assumed office in January 2011, a record number of inmates with life sentences are winning parole. Brown has allowed the release of nearly 1,400 lifers, while going along with the parole board about 82 percent of the time.
Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, authorized the release of 557 lifers during his six-year term, sustaining the board at a 27 percent clip. Before that, Gov. Gray Davis over 3 years approved the release of two.
This dramatic shift in releases under Brown comes as the state grapples with court orders to ease a decades-long prison crowding crisis that has seen triple bunking, prison gyms turned into dormitories and inmates shipped out of state.
Crime victims and their advocates have said the releases are an injustice to the victims and that the parolees could pose a danger to the public. More than 80 percent of lifers are in prison for murder, while 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. “This is a change of philosophy that can be dangerous.”
It’s important to note that these life sentences are not the “life without parole” variety, but the kind that started off eligible for parole at some point in the future. The only way to undo the LWOP sentences would be executive acts of clemency. That, at least thus far, doesn’t seem to be Brown’s direction.
In fact, Brown defends these approvals by saying the court has forced his hand on prison overcrowding. He’s blocked 100 paroles thus far, but can’t issue vetoes at the same rate and expect to comply with judicial orders to lower prison populations. Assuming that doesn’t do the trick, and California doesn’t add prison space, how long before judges start looking at LWOP cases? Or for that matter, California’s death-row roster, most of whom wait decades before facing the executioner?
California needs to make some tough decisions on incarceration, sentencing, and investment in prisons. This is just another symptom of the state’s governing class kicking those decisions down the road for far too long.