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Trapped Part One: Cruel and Indefinite Punishment

California wastes tens of millions of dollars a year keeping people in prison long after they've been rehabilitated — denying parole for arbitrary reasons and destroying lives in the process.

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*Lifers: People serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 2013 data/Uncommon Law. - ROXANNE PASIBE
  • Roxanne Pasibe
  • *Lifers: People serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 2013 data/Uncommon Law.

Under state law, a parole board, made up of commissioners appointed by the governor, decides whether an individual is "suitable" for release. The law requires the parole board to release eligible inmates when they are no longer a danger to society. Commissioners are also supposed to remain unbiased and must not deny parole to an inmate merely because of the severity of the original crime.

But interviews with currently incarcerated lifers, recently released lifers, family members of inmates, and criminal defense attorneys — along with an extensive review of parole data and hearing transcripts and in-person observations of parole proceedings behind bars — paint a picture of a process plagued by harsh and arbitrary decisions that force people to stay locked up for many years after they have been rehabilitated. And inmates are regularly denied freedom due to petty disciplinary marks and questionable and biased conclusions of board commissioners.

For the majority of lifers who can't afford counsel, their fate rests in the hands of state-appointed attorneys, who receive low pay and are usually burdened with heavy caseloads. These lawyers often do very minimal prep work before a hearing, making it easy for veteran prosecutors and tough board members to exploit the obscure vulnerabilities of a prisoner seeking parole. The most marginalized inmates — including those with mental illnesses and people who have previously suffered abuse and trauma — face particularly challenging parole battles (a topic covered in Part Two of the two-part "Trapped" series, which will be published in the January 14 Express).

From a policy and economic standpoint, experts have increasingly scrutinized this sector of the state prison system with the recognition that the continued imprisonment of lifers plays a major role in overcrowding and is incredibly costly to taxpayers. And from a personal and emotional standpoint, the cruel legal twists of the parole process can excessively punish reformed men and women while also inflicting immense pain on the lives of loved ones on the outside. People who committed crimes decades ago, when they were kids, are regularly denied second chances even when it seems they've done everything right in prison.

Just ask Johnson. In July 2015, he was denied parole for the ninth time — in part due to an alleged rule violation that was so surprising and arbitrary, he could barely process it when his parole commissioners raised it during his hearing. He had, they said, put his arm around his fiancée while she was visiting him on Valentine's Day — an infraction that showed he is clearly unable to follow rules and is still a danger to society.


For decades, it was nearly impossible for California lifers to get released. In the 1980s and '90s, "life with the possibility of parole was the functional equivalent of a sentence to life without parole," said Kathryne Young, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University who has closely studied the parole process in California.

According to 2013 statistics (the most recent data available) from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), roughly 70 percent of prisoners are serving out "determinate sentences," meaning cases in which the courts sentence people to a finite amount of time, after which they are released. About 4 percent of prisoners (those convicted of the most serious crimes) are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole or are on Death Row.

The rest are like Johnson — lifers with "indeterminate sentences" who eventually become eligible for parole and are entitled to hearings to determine their suitability for release. From 1980 to 2008, fewer than 10 percent of the cases before the Board of Parole Hearings resulted in grants of release, according to a 2011 analysis by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. And for the small group that the board deemed suitable to go home, very few were actually released. That's because in 1988, California voters passed Proposition 89, which gave the governor the authority to overturn the board's parole decisions in murder cases.

From 1999 to 2003, Governor Gray Davis reversed virtually all of the parole board's grants of release. And from 2003 to 2011, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed 60 percent of grants and sent 20 percent back to the parole board for additional review. As a result of the low rate of parole grants by the board and the high rate of rejections by governors, the size of the lifer population as a percentage of the overall prison population has increased dramatically — from 8 percent in 1990 to 25 percent today, according to UnCommon Law. California has the highest rate of lifers of any state in the country, the Stanford report found.

Among the small group of lifers who have successfully reentered society in recent decades, many were incarcerated long after they had served their minimum sentences and had become eligible for release. For example, from 1999 to 2010, 701 lifers who were convicted of second-degree murder — an offense that typically carries a sentence of fifteen years to life — were granted parole and released after spending an average of twenty years behind bars, Stanford found. And for those convicted of crimes that typically bring sentences of "seven years to life," 227 lifers were released during that same time period. They spent, on average, significantly more than seven years in prison — fourteen years for attempted murder and seventeen years for kidnapping for robbery or rape.

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