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The biggest roadblock to freedom for lifers, though, may be Proposition 89. Passed in 1988, it made California one of only four states to allow governors to overturn parole-board decisions. So if someone were lucky enough to be found suitable for release by the board, the governor could — and typically would — override the decision, keeping that person behind bars.
In the past twelve years, California governors have reversed 60 to 98 percent of parole board decisions, according to state data. (In his latest term, Brown has only reversed 20 percent, but because of Marsy's Law, only around 5 percent of eligible lifers have been freed on his watch.) "The politics of this is that if you are the governor and you release somebody, and that person commits a crime, it's going to be thrown in your face in the next election," Krisberg explained.
He recalled the iconic 1988 presidential campaign, when supporters of GOP presidential candidate George H.W. Bush ran ads against Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis, after the Massachusetts governor had presided over a weekend furlough of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer. While free, Horton raped a woman after pistol-whipping, knifing, binding, and gagging her fiancé. The ads effectively killed Dukakis' presidential bid and changed the politics of criminal justice nationwide. "A lot of governors saw that and said, "That's not going to happen on my watch,'" Krisberg said. "It became irresistible for governors to not parole anyone." As a result, tens of thousands of inmates have remained incarcerated far past their minimum terms.
Tony Cyprien was one of them. Since the age of thirteen, Cyprien hadn't seen a solid year of freedom. After three years in youth lock-ups, Cyprien's mother suddenly died when he was sixteen and he met his father for the first time at the funeral. He was essentially on his own, but he found kinship in the notorious Crips gang. They became his family, and the most common way he showed his love was through violence. "I was always feeling anger," Cyprien remembered. "Either because something happened to me, or on behalf of one of my homies. I was always out for revenge, always ready to ride."
At seventeen, Cyprien shot and killed a rival gang member. It was a harsh crime and he received a harsh sentence — 25 years to life, to be served at Solano State Prison. "I didn't think about the concept of freedom," Cyprien remembered. "I just accepted that this could be the rest of my life — walking yards, talking to other men."
During his time at Solano, Cyprien saw the effects of determinate sentencing and the revolving door of reoffenders. "Because they had no incentive to change, people would fall back into their old ways of thinking," he said. "Prisoners would leave thinking, 'Man, I figured out what I did wrong, I should have zigged when I zagged. I ain't going to get busted the next time.' But they'd keep coming back to the pen, in and out, in and out, because they never learned about themselves." But as a lifer, Cyprien knew he had to learn about himself. To get out, he had to completely transform. He attended self-help and religious groups, anger management classes, and became a certified welder. "They call them 'tools to work with,'" he said, "and I picked up as many tools as I could to survive in this free world."
Cyprien made so much progress that he was granted parole in 2009 at his first hearing — an almost unheard-of feat. He was over forty, and overjoyed. But before he could be freed, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped in and reversed the parole board's decision. Cyprien was heartbroken, and he stayed in prison another year.
In 2010, Cyprien applied for parole again. This time he had all of his cards lined up. After being released he was going to live with his wife. He had contacted potential employers in the Bay Area. And he had a spot pending in an Oakland re-entry program. The parole board recognized all of this, finding him suitable for release once again. But just like the previous year, Schwarzenegger overturned the decision.
In 2011, Cyprien took a different approach. He filed a writ of habeas corpus with the courts, claiming wrongful detention. It was a costly legal battle, financed by his wife, but it eventually freed him last fall. "I just wanted to get out of there as fast as I could," Cyprien remembered. "Before someone said, 'Nah man, we made a mistake."
In a 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times, then-Attorney General Jerry Brown acknowledged the problems with California's criminal justice system, and the failings of determinate sentencing: "If a prisoner knows he's going to spend a determined amount of time for a crime, it may create a deterrent. But then once in prison, there's no incentive to do work programs, to improve yourself — no incentive that you can get out earlier. That's bad. That's very bad. ... I think the whole prison system needs to be changed."
A few times, Brown has hinted at a return to indeterminate sentencing. And he isn't the only politician who feels this way. Over the past three decades, state lawmakers have introduced nine separate pieces of legislation that could have changed sentencing laws. Each one considered a return to indeterminate sentencing.