Legal Corner – Fighting for your rights: Parole

Pam Fadem
Now is an important time to turn up the heat on the Governor, State Legislators and the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH), to uphold the constitutional right to parole. Former members of the Board who were forced to resign for “being soft on crime” are not going quietly. They now say what prisoners, their families, and community and legal advocates have been saying for years: the Board is stacked by the Governor to unfairly and illegally deny parole. A State Superior Court Judge is challenging parole denials by the Board. If we increase public pressure on both the Governor and our State Legislators, we can make parole a viable option.
In the three months she served, Bilenda Harris-Ritter granted 12 paroles out of approximately 300 life cases. “I didn’t find a public safety reason not to grant them parole and so I followed the law and I granted it,” she said. But the 12 paroles she approved got the attention of victims’ rights groups who called the Governor to complain. Ms. Harris-Ritter was told she had a choice: resign or be fired. She resigned, but decided to speak out against the pressure that victims’ rights groups and politicians put on the Board members.
Tracey St. Julien was appointed to the Board in July 2005. She was already hearing cases and was a few weeks away from her official Senate confirmation, when she was dismissed for being “soft on crime.” She was overheard telling a prisoner’s lawyer that she loved having the chance to grant parole to someone convicted of murder when they clearly deserved it. That was too much for conservative politicians. Ms. St. Julien was given the same choice that Ms. Harris-Ritter was given a year later: resign or be fired. CCWP believes these 2 women are not the only Parole Board members who have been pressured this way.
On August 30, 2007, in an unprecedented 34-page ruling, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Linda Condron called the current parole process “malfunctioning.” The judge ruled that the Board’s approach to thousands of cases each year is so flawed it violates the constitutional rights of California’s inmates during parole hearings. Her harshly worded opinion, which stemmed from the cases of 5 men who were denied parole while serving time on murder convictions, took the extraordinary step of ordering the state agency to revise its procedures and undergo training within 90 days to ?fix the system.?
Out of about 3,000 decisions each year, the BPH grants parole to only about 5% of eligible prisoners who are serving potential life terms. The Board is denying parole with “formulaic decisions” that “do not contain any explanation or thoughtful reasoning,” Judge Condron wrote. Judge Condron found the Board is ignoring a 2005 State Supreme Court ruling that established new guidelines for how the BPH reviews so-called “lifer” cases.
Let your local State Legislators hear from you about the right to parole. And let Governor Schwarzenegger know what you think about the Board of Parole Hearings. You can call, fax or write him a message at:
Phone: 916-445-2841
Fax: 916-445-4633
Address: State Capitol Building, Sacramento, CA 95814
At this time, the only way anyone with a murder conviction is getting out on parole is through the courts. It’s very important for people to learn how to file a writ to appeal the Board’s denial of parole. Jane Dorotik, a long-time CCWP member, has written detailed instructions on how to prepare a Writ against the BPH if they deny you parole. We cannot print it in full in The Fire Inside, but we are happy to send you a copy. Please write to us at CCWP.