For years, this was true in California as well. But over the past decade, the state has begun to inch the gates open. According to the state’s Board of Parole Hearings, more than 5,000 California lifers were eligible to go before a two- or three-person parole panel in 2019 to make the case that they are suitable candidates for release. In the first 11 months of the year, 1,074 of them, or 19 percent, were granted parole. While that number is still dwarfed by the tens of thousands left inside, it’s a striking shift from previous decades, when fewer than 1 percent of those who went before the board ever returned to society.
Life sentences usually stem from convictions for violent crimes such as murder, rape and kidnapping, although by the end of 2016 almost 11,000 of the nation’s lifers had been given those sentences for nonviolent crimes. Violent criminals are generally the people the public feels least ambivalent about locking up; life sentences have historically been seen as a humane alternative to the death penalty. As a result, the number of people serving such sentences — including “virtual life sentences” that exceed an offender’s expected life span — is growing steadily, even as the rate of violent crime sinks to its lowest levels in decades. A 2017 report by the Sentencing Project, a criminal-justice research-and-advocacy group, found that the number of people serving life sentences nationwide grew by 21,000 from 2008 to 2016, driven both by a growth in the imposition of life sentences and by the reluctance of most states to grant parole to those who are eligible. Even as politicians from both parties have begun embracing alternatives to mass incarceration, criminal-justice reform has yet to touch those deemed the worst of the worst. “It’s hard to get that people who committed a serious crime are not always potentially on the verge of committing another one,” says Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst for the Sentencing Project.
Yet lifers are highly unlikely to reoffend once released. A 2011 study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center followed 860 California murderers paroled after 1995 and found that only five — less than 1 percent — went on to commit another felony. None committed another murder. This can be explained partly by age: People become less likely to commit crimes as they get older. But many of those who work with lifers will attest to another factor, something that the American punitive, retributive criminal-justice system scarcely seems to believe is possible: lasting change. Deep in the heart of the largest correctional systems in the country, men and women who have been locked up for decades have improvised a path to rehabilitation using whatever methods they can muster: self-help groups, 12-step programs, books, journal-writing, Bible study, peer mentoring — all of them leading up to the hearing where they must try to win their freedom.
California’s parole hearings are something like an ordeal of the soul, an investigation of every stage of an inmate’s life from birth onward. Held on prison grounds, they can take one hour or last as long as nine hours. While a lifer will have a lawyer present — one who is appointed by the state, usually — it is the inmate who will do almost all of the talking, responding to detailed questioning by the commissioner and deputy commissioner who conduct the hearing. “I’m not sure that there are really any other places in life where somebody is scrutinized so much in such a public way by people they don’t know,” says Jennifer Shaffer, the executive officer for the California Board of Parole Hearings.
Inmates are expected to show that they understand how they became the person who could commit a terrible crime. As Shaffer puts it: “If you don’t understand the factors that led you to do what you did before, how would anybody know that you’re not going to do it again?” The result is a moral interrogation before interlocutors who can alternate between sympathy and condemnation as they ask inmates to dig deep into the most traumatic episodes of their lives. “That boardroom,” says Lawrence Strauss, the state-appointed lawyer who represented Morgan at his hearing, “is a house of pain.”
The modern idea of basing a prisoner’s release on evidence of his or her rehabilitated character can be traced to 1870, when the inaugural meeting of the newly formed American Prison Association took place in Cincinnati. There, representatives from 25 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada adopted a declaration of principles, among them that prisoners should be rewarded for good conduct and that a “prisoner’s destiny should be placed, measurably, in his own hands.” To achieve this, they argued, “sentences limited only by satisfactory proof of reformation should be substituted for those measured by mere lapse of time.”
By 1922, nearly every state in the union had adopted indeterminate sentencing, in which judges hand out sentences that are formulated as a range of years — a minimum and a maximum amount of time to be served. The responsibility for deciding exactly when in this range an inmate had been rehabilitated enough to be released was vested in state parole boards. (The federal penal system has its own early-release process.)
Over the next half century, it became clear that there was an intrinsic tension between the high-minded notion that inmates should be in control of their own destinies, by deciding whether or not to reform, and the practical difficulty of determining whether they had actually done so. By the 1970s, the discretionary parole system was under attack. Liberals argued that a parole board’s broad leeway allowed racial and class biases to rule unchecked. Conservatives argued that parole boards were releasing dangerous felons who then went on to commit more crimes. A rising national crime rate made the public increasingly dubious of the paternalistic promises of a rehabilitative system.
Over time, some states got rid of parole entirely, while others drastically increased the minimum amount of time an inmate would need to serve before becoming eligible to go before a board. In Georgia, for example, inmates who received a life sentence for a serious crime committed before January 1995 became eligible for parole after seven years. Those who have received a life sentence for a crime committed after June 2006 don’t become eligible for parole until they’ve served 30 years.
But discretionary parole continues to exist in most states, even if it’s often limited to a small pool of longtime inmates whose lengthy periods of incarceration have consigned them to near-oblivion. Conducted by panels of political appointees with varying levels of professional expertise, little accountability and almost unlimited discretion, parole hearings rarely garner attention except when a high-profile inmate comes up for parole.
The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that inmates who have been sent to prison for life have no due-process right to be released unless the wording of their state’s parole statute created one. In the absence of such rights, parole decisions can be remarkably arbitrary. A 2017 survey of paroling authorities by the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School found that 41 percent of parole boards never make public the logic behind a parole denial, and at least seven states don’t require their parole boards to provide a written explanation for their denial to the parole-seeking inmate. Prisoners are often unable to see the file that the parole board bases its decisions on — in Alabama and North Carolina, inmates are not even allowed to be present for the hearing. While every state except Kentucky and New Mexico allows inmates to have a lawyer at their hearing, very few states will pay for one, which means only a tiny minority of inmates have a lawyer with them at their hearings. “You have about 3 percent of the procedural rights before a parole board as you would in a courtroom,” says Kevin Reitz, the Robina Institute’s former co-director.
To read more CLICK HERE