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Unlike the rest of the prison population, lifers are statistically unlikely to reoffend — another reason why advocates say California has a moral and financial obligation to send more of these inmates home. Overall, according to the state's 2014 recidivism report, roughly 54 percent of California prisoners return to prison within three years of their release. The recidivism rate for certain classes of lifers, however, is close to zero. From 1995 to 2011, of the 860 lifers who had been convicted of murder and were later released, only five people returned to jail or prison for new felonies — and none for crimes that carry life sentences, according to the Stanford report. Of 278 lifers released during the 2009–10 fiscal year, only 26 people — 9 percent — returned to prison, according to CDCR. And 25 of them returned because of parole violations. Meanwhile, 54 percent of inmates released during that fiscal year after serving determinate sentences returned to prison within three years.
Advocates of long prison sentences argue that the lifer recidivism rate is extremely low because California's parole process is so rigorous. But critics say the data clearly shows that many lifers who present an incredibly low risk of reoffending remain locked up for unjustifiable reasons. Studies have further shown that people age out of crime and that people over age forty, and especially those older than fifty, pose a very low risk of committing new crimes on the outside. The state's own risk assessment tool has concluded that 90 percent of lifers have a low or moderate risk of reoffending — compared to 56 percent of the general prison population, according to the Stanford report.
Reform advocates also have increasingly highlighted how much money the state could save if it regularly granted parole to inmates who have rehabilitated. California currently spends an average of nearly $64,000 per state prisoner each year, meaning incarcerating this population costs taxpayers more than $2 billion annually. If even just 10 percent of the lifers currently eligible for parole were released, the state would save nearly $64 million annually.
Continued overcrowding makes the need for increased lifer parole grants all the more urgent, advocates argue. California prisons are currently at 136 percent capacity, which equates to nearly 30,000 more inmates than the total capacity of its institutions and, prison activists say, can lead to inhumane conditions and inadequate services for inmates.
Still, eligible prisoners with extensive evidence of their successful rehabilitation, personal transformation, and suitability for reentry are routinely denied a second chance at the parole board. For many, that harsh reality is rooted in the fact that they are forced to enter their high-stakes parole hearings without a strong advocate by their side.
On the morning of August 6, 2015, Larry Johnson, an inmate at the California Institution for Men in Chino, an hour east of Los Angeles, woke up feeling prepared and eager for his parole hearing. The board had denied him parole in his first hearing in 2014, and he felt he had accomplished a lot since then and could make a strong case to the commissioners that he was ready to come home. But he was nervous about his attorney, John Ibrahim.
For starters, he hadn't yet met Ibrahim, the lawyer appointed by the parole board to represent him. Earlier in the year, Ibrahim had called the prison and, according to Johnson, did very short back-to-back phone calls with a number of lifers whom Ibrahim would be representing at upcoming hearings. (Larry is not related to Demian Johnson, the Mule Creek inmate). This was Ibrahim's official "client interview," which lifer advocates said should always happen face-to-face. "The phone call lasted five minutes," the 44-year-old Johnson said in a recent phone interview from prison. "He told me ... this is the 'getting to know me' process." Johnson said they went over the very basics of his case file — what self-help classes he had successfully completed and whether he had any serious rule violations during his incarceration (he did not). It felt like the conversation was over before it began. "I was kind of shocked, actually," Johnson said.
When Johnson finally met Ibrahim in person, the attorney did not inspire confidence. According to Johnson, Ibrahim showed up at the last minute, said little to him, chatted briefly with the commissioners, and worked on his closing statement on his laptop minutes before the proceeding began. Ibrahim was still writing it when the commissioners officially started the hearing, Johnson said. "It was awful from start to finish. There was no connection between myself and the attorney," said Johnson, who is serving a fifteen-years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder and recently became eligible for parole.
According to Johnson, Ibrahim said little on his behalf during the hearing, and it seemed doomed from the start. The commissioners denied him parole again. Due to a technical error, the board apparently did not properly record the audio, which means the state later had to dismiss the decision and grant him a new hearing, scheduled for April, CDCR records show. (There was thus no transcript of the hearing for me to review.) UnCommon Law is now representing Johnson.