Editorial: California’s Parole System — Cruel and Illegal!

What does it feel like to focus all your hopes for months on a parole board hearing, to gather letters of reference and support, and to go into the hearing with clear proof that you are more than ready to be released to your family and community? What does it feel like to arrive anxiously at your hearing, only to be put on trial once again, grilled about every aspect of your past, derided about the gravity of your offense and then told abruptly that you are still unsuitable for parole, that you need more rehabilitation or education (which of course is unavailable) and that you should come back again in a year, or two, or five to go through the whole sham process once again? Ask the hundreds of battered women doing life sentences because they responded to years of abuse, or any of the 20,000 lifers with indeterminate sentences, about this torturous process. You will hear the same story again and again of hopes betrayed and laws broken.
The statistics are shocking. In 1978 the parole grant rate in California was about 50%. By 1985 the rate had dropped to 5% and by 1998 the rate was down to .2% and the majority of those granted parole had their grants rescinded by Governor Wilson. Now with Governor Davis’ brazen statement in April 1999 that he will not agree to parole anyone convicted of any type of murder charge, we can expect the release rate to plummet to nearly zero.
Yet the governing statutes, CA Penal Code 3041 et seq, have remained exactly the same over the last twenty years. It is the CA Board of Prison Terms (BPT) and the governors who have taken the law into their own hands, disobeying the mandated requirements that the Board fix terms at a lifer’s first parole hearing and in effect resentencing all prisoners with indeterminate sentences to life without possibility of parole (see our legal column for documentation of legal violations by Board).
What has changed in the past 20 years is the shift from rehabilitation to punishment as the only goal of California’s prisons and the use of incarceration rather than educational and economic programs to deal with the people who are disempowered by the current social system. What has also changed is the growing strength of the prison guard’s union (CCPOA) which backs policies and candidates which insure that the prisons stay filled. As activist attorney Rose Braz pointed out in a recent article in the L.A. Times, “the ‘no parole’ policy has created the justification for the state’s latest boondoggle: the proposed construction of a new 5,000 bed, $335 million maximum-security prison in Delano.”
Recently an appellate court ruled that the BPT abused its discretion when it found Robert Rosenkrantz, a convicted murderer, unsuitable for parole. It ordered the Board to hold a new hearing and set a parole date for him. This ruling, and legislative efforts (SB128) to direct the parole board to do its job, are indications that the abuses of the parole system are finally gaining more widespread notice. We need to send Davis and the Parole Board a strong message that there will be zero tolerance for their illegal no-parole policy!