In California, there are two versions of the criminal sentence “life in prison.” One offers the possibility of parole, the other does not. Similarly, there are two ways to get out of prison on parole. The average inmate serves his or her predetermined sentence and when let out, automatically becomes a parolee. For someone in prison on a sentence of “life with the possibility of parole,” the inmate must be found eligible for release by the Board of Parole Hearings. And apparently, that just doesn’t happen too often.
According to the Capitol Weekly:
- There are 33,200 lifers in prison right now, many of whom are eligible for consideration for parole;
- Out of 180 lifers granted release dates in the first quarter of 2010, 3 were actually paroled;
- Largely due to the growing and aging lifer population, the number of over-55 inmates has doubled since 2000;
- It costs 2-3 times more to incarcerate an elderly inmate than a young one;
- Inmates over 55 present a “relatively low risk of reoffending and show high rates of parole success.”
So if there’s concern over the cost of housing this aging, relatively low-risk population, why aren’t more lifers paroled when they become eligible? For an answer, let’s look at USD Law Professor Shaun Martin’s examination of the case of Kuldip Kler, convicted of second-degree murder in 1989 and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison:
“He commits two minor disciplinary offenses during his early years in prison but is otherwise a model prisoner. Even though he’s a Sikh and there are no programs for his religion in prison, he takes forty-plus religion and bible study classes, and does a massive number of self-help and counseling programs; e.g., 75 (!) between 2005 and 2007. And I know it’s a stereotype, but he also does incredibly good ceramics work as a prisoner. Which he then donates to the San Joaquin County Child Abuse Prevention Council, which raised over $15,000 selling them.
Kler has consistently admitted his guilt since 1997. Every single mental health evaluation says he’s got an incredibly small chance of reoffending. His evaluation also says he “has a strong support system of family and friends, which give him an excellent chance of success.”
In short, he’s an outstanding candidate for release when he comes up for parole in 2007, having at that point spent 18 years in prison on a sentence of 15 to life.
But here’s the rub. The murder he committed was of a 10-month old. His daughter. Who he brutally hit to death in a fit of rage when she began crying at 3:00 a.m.
No way the Parole Board’s going to grant parole to someone like that. Model prisoner or no. The sentence may formally say 15 to life. But based solely on the crime itself, no way he’s getting let out at the early stage of being eligible. So, predictably, the Parole Board denies parole notwithstanding all the totally favorable facts and the extremely low likelihood of future violence.”
Kler appealed his denial of parole in court and a judge sent the case back to the parole board, with instructions to grant him parole. The parole board did so in 2009, only to have their decision overruled by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cited the heinous nature of the original crime and Kler’s “lack of insight.” Kler again appealed to a court, which reversed the Governor’s decision and Kler was paroled in October of 2010, after 21 years in prison.
The court, in overturning the Governor’s decision, said the facts Schwarzenegger relied upon ”are not supported by the record, nor do they lead to the conclusion that (Kler) would be an unreasonable risk of violence if released on parole.”
“So,” Martin writes, “Kler gets out. But it’s several years later, and the ‘responsibility’ of the judiciary, not an elected politician.”
Vanessa Nelson the co-founder of the Life Support Alliance–an advocacy group for “fair, unbiased consideration” of parole for lifers–says the primary reason for not letting out more lifers is politics. “No one wants to be the person who let a murderer out of prison,” she says. And the parole board, which is largely made of up of former and aspiring politicians, she says, has every interest being “tough on crime.”
But why have a sentence that calls for “the possibility of parole,” Nelson says, if the horrific nature of the crime means the person should never be let out, no matter how much they change?