The Muddy Debate about Parole in California
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. Practically speaking Green likely could not have been kept behind bars until 2012 because practically speaking almost everyone in California gets some amount of good-time credits (see this PDF). That’s in part because overcrowding in the prisons is so severe. Unless Green had recorded some sort of disciplinary violation while in prison affecting his good-time credits, there’s no reason to think that the state realistically would ever have kept him locked up until 2012.
And, if Green was serving a three-year term, his release would not have been decided upon by a parole board because that’s not how parole works in California. As Jonathan Simon explains:
California releases 95 percent or more of its offenders from prison after they’ve served a “determinate sentence.” That is, there’s no discretionary decision — by a parole board or other administrative authority — over when someone is “ready” to come out on parole. We used to have that, but in 1976 we changed the law.
So to sum up: The Los Angeles Times reports that Green was serving a three-year sentence, and was released after a year and a half. If those facts are right then it sounds like what happened is that, like most California prisoners, Green had a determinate sentence, he served a fixed percentage of that time, and then was automatically released subject to some level of parole supervision in the community. The only people who have to go before the parole board to get released in California are those serving indeterminate sentences (say, 25-to-life) for crimes like murder. For a determinate three-year term you don’t have to go before the parole board, you automatically get released after you serve some percentage of your time pursuant to the state’s good-time credits formula (usually half time, unless certain conditions apply like it’s a second strike, in which case you might serve 85%). To be sure, I could be wrong here on the details (either because I’m missing something or because the press coverage of this case has missed something — I obviously haven’t looked at Green’s files myself), but that’s my basic understanding of how the process works.
Now if people want to argue that Green shouldn’t have been released, that California shouldn’t calculate good-time credits the way it does, or that he should have been more rigorously supervised upon release (as the LAPD union has argued), those might be important discussions to have but the problems this case exposes are systemic, not specific to any discretionary decisions made in this particular case. Experts generally agree that California’s combination of determinate sentencing with near-universal post-release parole supervision is a failure that “threatens public safety by dedicating resources to irrelevant issues and ignoring violent felons.”
But that’s not because prisoners are going before a parole board and “begging” for release (in fact, few California prisoners ever have occasion to go before the parole board and of those who do, almost none are released); it’s because California, unlike any other state, releases almost everyone onto parole supervision, thereby requiring parole officers to monitor a large number and wide range of offenders including, at one end of the spectrum, people who would never have been kept in the system at all in other states and, at the other end, people who would never have been released from prison at all in other states. Here’s my earlier primer on how some of this works, and here’s one of my earlier posts wondering if California should just change the name of parole supervision since no one seems to understand how it works.
Finally, in the next few weeks you’ll hear a lot from police officers about how recent parole reforms have “weakened” parole in California by taking some low-level offenders off of full parole supervision. But actually those reforms were designed to mitigate some of the problems the Green case exposes, by lightening parole officer caseloads so they could stop having to worry about literally everyone released from prison and instead focus on the more dangerous offenders. Unfortunately the reforms didn’t go as far as they might have in part because parole supervision is a one-way ratchet: once the state has been committed to supervising everyone for 30 years, no one wants to be the politician who says let’s stop worrying about some of these guys. Never mind that no other state in the union does this.
Another point that may be buried underneath the idea that Green “could have been kept in prison until 2012” is that California shouldn’t be so generous with its good-time credits. That’s another policy debate we could have but given that California’s prisons are bursting at the seams, the state really lacks the flexibility to make nuanced decisions about who to keep in prison. This all points to an underappreciated reason why law-and-order politics don’t necessarily protect public safety: After 30 years of getting tough on crime, California now has a corrections system that is so bloated and unwieldy and overinclusive that it has very little agility to deal with people who are really dangerous.