Brown has handed out more than 1,100 pardons benefiting a wide array of individuals, including those convicted of dealing drugs, driving while intoxicated and forgery. The tally is staggeringly greater than the totals of his immediate predecessors. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger granted 15 pardons, and Democrat Gray Davis ended with zero.
Perhaps more remarkable are the commutations, which grant parole hearings to — and often spell early release for — criminals who previously may have had no chance of ever being paroled. Brown has issued 82 in the past seven years, far more than any California governor since at least the 1940s. Criminal justice reformers nationwide applaud him. Victims rights advocates are livid.
“2018 is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Patricia Wenskunas, founder and chief executive of the Crime Survivors Resource Center. “The sad reality is, California is not a victim-friendly state. It’s an offender-friendly state.”
California was once a leader in tough-on-crime policies, which turned its prisons into inmate warehouses. Then in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in the state’s prison system amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The decision accelerated a wave of legal reforms that have reduced the prison population by 25 percent. About 115,000 inmates remain locked up in the state’s 33 facilities. The vast majority of those released to date have been nonviolent offenders.
Brown’s commutations for the 20 murder convicts were tucked into a larger batch of pardons and commutations that he handed out last month. The designation isn’t synonymous with freedom but amounts to a reduction of an original sentence. For these 20 men and women, most of whom had been sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, it means they’ll be granted a hearing.
The governor sees his action not as a sign of lenience so much as a societal course correction. “There has been an overshoot in the time many people expect [criminals] to be locked up in a cage or cell,” he said in an interview.
In the 1970s, those convicted of first-degree murder tended to serve about a decade for their crimes, he noted; now it isn’t unusual for such sentences to span a half-century. Some 5,000 prisoners today are serving life sentences without parole in California.
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