Legal Corner: Parole–Will we ever get out?

by Cassie Pierson, Staff Attorney, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Crystal Potter, a prisoner at VSPW, asks the following: “Doesn’t this constitutional right to earn parole dates take refusals out of the Governor’s hand? Why are we still here after serving 20 & 21 years of a 15 year sentence?”
Good questions, Crystal, unfortunately there are no good answers. The governor does have the right to review decisions made by the parole board and also has the right to modify or reverse those decisions pursuant to Penal Code 3041.1 and 3041.2. However, the governor does not have the authority to establish a “no-parole policy” which seems to be the direction he is taking-one begun by former Governor Wilson.
In his testimony before the Joint Legislative committee on Prison Construction & Operations, on April 29, 1999, Gary Diamond, an attorney who represents prisoners at Board hearings, recalled the first hearing he attended. As he walked into Folsom he was met by one of the commissioners who said, “I want your client to stipulate to a two-year denial”, to which Mr. Diamond responded, “Well, you haven’t even talked to him. You haven’t talked to me. You don’t know anything about the case. I mean, don’t I get to make a pitch?” It soon became apparent that Mr. Diamond’s client would be blackmailed into taking a two-year denial; if he failed to take the deal he would receive a three-year denial. That was Mr. Diamond’s introduction to the Board of Prison Terms.
Unfortunately, things have gotten worse since that fateful day at Folsom prison. Another attorney, Rowan Klein, testifying at the same hearings, said, “I think the problem here is that we’re entering into the political arena, rather than the arena where fairness and due process is what should be applied. And that we shouldn’t have the Board changing its mind because we have a new governor…if what happens is that the Governor can dictate what the law-how the law should be interpreted, we’re not allowing the Board the independence that it should have.”
The political nature of the appointments to the Board cannot be overlooked. Nor can the fact that many (if not most) of those appointed by Governor Davis are coming from a background of law enforcement. From July of 1999 to April of this year, Davis appointed at least five persons to the Board, James Nielsen, Leonard Munoz, David Hepburn, Alfred Angele, and Sharon Lawin. Of those five, only two (Nielsen and Lawin) were not former police officers. But, Ms. Lawin did have at least a connection to law enforcement-she served as the Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association.
In a sworn declaration, Albert Leddy an attorney (now retired) and a former BPT commissioner and chairman (1983 to 1992; Gov. Deukmejian appointee), stated: “Accordingly, the effect that Governor Wilson has exerted upon BPT personally, through his politically-based policy, by his BPT appointments, and by his intervention to rescind and reverse parole grants, has been to remove any reasonable possibility of parole for practically all of the thousands of California prisoners serving terms of life with the possibility of parole.”
Mr. Leddy, after his term with the BPT expired, re-entered private practice and represented prisoners at parole hearings. Further along in his declaration he says, “It has been clear to me that there is a general conspiracy to prevent life prisoners from paroling, especially those whose offenses include murder. Obviously, such a ‘no-parole’ policy means that no murder offender can get a fair hearing as the law requires. If you can deny a prisoner “suitability” solely on the basis of the crime, you can deny him forever. The crime won’t change. The parole law is based on the idea that prisoners do change, and become no danger to public safety.”