Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

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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 »

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