Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘parole

The Fiscal Crisis and Criminal Justice Reform

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Does fiscal crisis promote criminal justice reform? From reading newspapers and magazines, one would certainly think so. State efforts to cut costs by downsizing prisons have been one of the biggest criminal justice stories in recent years — with articles like this one (on California) and this one (on Oregon and… (the list could go on) now a recurring feature in both national and local newspapers. UC-Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram has coined a term for this convergence of fiscal woes with prison reform: “humonetarianism.” And one of the more intriguing political developments of the Obama era — the sudden reversal of many right-wing politicians from their Bush/Clinton/Bush era “tough on crime” stance — can be explained in part by concerns about the runaway costs to taxpayers of mass incarceration. Yet as Malcolm C. Young notes at The Crime Report, state budget woes can also be “double-edged swords” if they lead states to slash social programs that can help keep people out of prison.

In a (relatively) new paper, UW law professor Mary D. Fan provides some timely scholarly analysis of this seeming trend of “budget-cut criminal justice,” and offers suggestions for how states might move beyond expedient cost-cutting to lasting penal reform. In turn, here’s UC-Davis law professor Elizabeth Joh, writing at the legal blog Jotwell, discussing Fan’s findings:

Some of [the recent state-level prison reform] measures are decidedly modest; about half of the states have introduced “back-end” sentence reductions in their early release and parole programs so that individual prisoners receive small adjustments in their sentences in the interest of collective fiscal savings. Wisconsin has introduced “Taco Tuesdays” to save $2 million dollars a year by shaving off ten cents per inmate meal. Other measures, though, are decidedly more ambitious. Fan draws upon many examples. In 2008, Mississippi amended a law requiring prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentences, so that parole boards could decide to release prisoners after serving 25 percent of their sentences. In 2009, New York amended its law to give counties the discretion to establish “local conditional release committees” to review applicants for early release. In 2010, the Colorado House of Representatives passed a bill with bipartisan support that lowers the penalties for several drug possession and use crimes.

Fan suggests public officials consciously embrace a fiscally responsible, evidence-based approach to penal policies that focuses on alternatives to automatically increasing sentences and warehousing prisoners. Unlike the rehabilitative ideal of the first half of the twentieth century, this rehabilitation pragmatism is less interested in the moral transformation of the prisoner and more concerned with cost-effective measures that nevertheless assure the public of its safety. Fan draws our attention to a moment in our history that may well be a turning point for prison policies that desperately need political will and legislative attention.

Realignment in California: The Basics, Plus How Counties Are Preparing

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On October 1, California will start diverting low-level felony offenders and parole violators to county jail, rather than state prison, when a new law, known as “realignment,” goes into effect. The law was proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown as a way to bring the California prison system into compliance with the Supreme Court’s order to alleviate overcrowding, and was enacted by the Legislature in March as AB 109. I thought I’d run through a few basics of how the law will work and round up some recent news coverage from around the state. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive resource, the ACLU of Northern California has produced a helpful guide (PDF) to the law and how counties can plan for the changes.

The Mechanics

  • How will AB 109 change California sentencing practices? As of October 1, the law transfers responsibility for punishing non-serious, non-violent, non-sex felony offenses to the county level, where misdemeanors are already handled. So rather than being sent to state prison, these low-level offenders will now be punished with a term in county jail or whatever alternative sanction the county comes up with. (For those familiar with the California Penal Code, generally we’re talking about felonies punishable by the “16 months/2 years/3 years” triad.)  Read the rest of this entry »

How Has Marsy’s Law Affected California Lifers?

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In 2008, California voters passed Prop 9, also known as Marsy’s Law, also known as the Victims’ Rights Bill of 2008. It was designed to decrease lifers’ chance of parole release by lengthening the amount of time between parole hearings, and to give victims a greater opportunity to participate in parole hearings. Thus far the law appears mainly to be succeeding at the former goal. A new study finds that

the passage of Marsy’s Law nearly doubled the amount of time set by the Parole Board between parole hearings. It is unclear whether Marsy’s Law has increased victim participation at parole hearings or has impacted the quality of victim participation at parole hearings.

(Keep in mind that California lifers already have a very small chance of being paroled.)

Written by sara

July 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm

California Lifers, Though Eligible for Parole, Are More Likely to Die in Prison

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That’s the conclusion that KALW reporter Nancy Mullane found when she ran the numbers. Kudos to Mullane for her dogged pursuit of this data, employing California’s Public Records Act. I thought I’d provide some additional context, mainly in the form of rounding up some links.

Caveat before I go on: It’s essential to keep in mind, when reading about criminal justice issues, that every state has different laws, policies, and terminology. This post is mainly about California, and in particular, about California prisoners serving life terms with the possibility of parole — which is a subset of the California prison population, mainly convicted of murder. For non-homicide crimes, California offenders are typically sentenced to determinate terms of a fixed number of years. They don’t have to go before the parole board because they’re automatically released, or “paroled,” when their term ends. The terminology is confusing, because the word “parole” is used to describe the release of both subsets of prisoners.

The fact is this: Because of the tough-on-crime turn of the 1980s and ’90s, many prisoners who were initially sentenced to life with the possibility of parole are now effectively serving LWOP or “death-in-prison” terms. It simply became a political near-impossibility to rubber-stamp the release of a convicted murderer. This bait-and-switch has happened in states across the country, though with different legal and administrative underpinnings in each state. In Virginia, parole-eligible inmates claim that the parole board summarily denies parole in every case. In Michigan, it was changes to the composition of the parole board that effectively made parole harder to earn.

In California, the change came in 1988. That year, Golden State voters transferred to the governor the final say on all parole decisions for murderers serving life terms. Read the rest of this entry »

450 California Inmates Wrongly Released? Not Really.

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Last week the California newspapers were filled with headlines stating that CDCR had mistakenly released 450 inmates due to a computer glitch. Well, there was a computer glitch. But these prisoners would have been released anyway because they were serving determinate sentences — and under a determinate sentence, once your time’s served, legally you have to be released. The computer glitch caused the released prisoners to be mistakenly assigned to the wrong level of post-release parole supervision, not to be mistakenly released. That’s still a problem, of course, but the distinction is important. The CDCR Star has a round-up of corrections/clarifications here.

The confusion among headline writers is understandable since the California system uses the word “parole” to refer both to discretionary release for indeterminately sentenced offenders and to post-release supervision for determinately sentenced offenders. I’ve suggested before that I think resolving this terminological ambiguity could help clarify the public discussion on prison and parole policy in the Golden State.

Written by sara

June 1, 2011 at 10:43 am

Posted in General News

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“What’s Ahead for California’s Dysfunctional Prisons?”

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The Crime Report has an interview with Matthew Cate, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation — worth reading in full for California wonks. Here’s an excerpt:

TCR: What are your two or three major accomplishments?

Cate: Reducing prison overcrowding while seeing crime rates in California continue to decline, is accomplishment number one. Number two is parole reform, where as I’ve mentioned, we’ve developed and used a risk assessment tool to identify and focus our resources on our most dangerous inmates, rather than just cycling our low risk inmates through our prisons over and over again for technical violations. This concept of basing our decisions on the science of who’s risky and who’s not is a major step forward in California.

TCR: What has been your biggest frustration?

Cate: The fact that corrections reform takes so long. It took two-and-a-half years to put in place the basic rudiments of parole reform. It was a highly politicized issue, and there were civil service and bureaucratic rules that had to be dealt with. The red tape is so unbelievable in California that it takes a long time to make anything happen even when everyone agrees it should be done.

Written by sara

January 12, 2011 at 11:46 am

The Muddy Debate about Parole in California

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Here in California there’s been a lot of local news coverage of the recent murder of Iraq veteran and Riverside police officer Ryan Bonaminio. The man arrested and charged for the killing, Earl Ellis Green, has done several stints in state prison. Most recently, he was released after serving about a year and a half of his three-year sentence for a 2007 vandalism conviction. Since Green was still under parole supervision at the time of the killing, the predictable direction of the coverage has been to focus on whether Bonaminio’s death could have been avoided if Green had been kept in prison longer.

As so often in California, which has a system of parole unlike any other state’s, the discussion has conflated parole release (not an issue with cases like Green’s) with parole supervision (which is what is really at issue here), muddying the debate. Misrepresenting what it means to be “on parole” in California, some commentators have stated that Green was released “early” from prison or even suggested that Green was released at the discretion of an overly merciful or gullible parole board (as in this this Desert Sun op-ed op-ed by Los Angeles police officer). Here the LA Weekly suggests that Green “could have been kept behind bars until 2012.”

This will obviously be an emotional discussion, but just so we’re clear on the factual predicates for whatever policy debate people want to have as a result of this case, it’s worth keeping in mind that much of this commentary is unclear and/or wrong on the facts. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

December 2, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Posted in General News

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