Governor Jerry Brown has taken a much different tack than his predecessors when it comes to one of the most fiery political issues in the criminal justice arena: paroling murderers. Mainly, Brown is allowing more “lifers”–those sentenced to life-in-prison with the possibility of parole–out of prison than any governor in recent history. According to papers dug up by the Sacramento Bee in April, in the first quarter of the year, Brown let 106 out of 130 parole decisions allowing people convicted of murder stand–that’s 82 percent:
Brown’s deference to the state Board of Parole Hearings is in contrast to his predecessors, who more aggressively used their power to overturn parole grants.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger let stand only about 27 percent of parole decisions. Gov. Gray Davis was even less lenient, letting only nine of 374 paroled killers out of prison while he was governor.
One of those benefitting from Brown’s parole philosophy is Ernest Morgan, who was freed from San Quentin State Prison yesterday morning. Morgan has been in prison since he was 18 for second degree murder of his stepsister. He’s now 42 and according to prison officials, has spent his time in prison reforming himself. Schwarzenegger repeatedly denied Morgan parole–citing the heinous nature of his offense–but Brown declined to review the decision to let him out.
The common wisdom when it comes to governors and paroling murderers is that it’s simply better, politically, to leave well enough alone. Communities tend to react with outrage when the perpetrator of a particularly heinous crime comes home. A segment of politically powerful victims rights groups has continuously opposed paroling murderers. And should such a released offender commit a new crime, not only is there a psychological toll, but a political one on the head of the governor who allowed that person to walk free. (Remember Willie Horton?)
So why is Brown taking a more measured approach to an issue that other governors have been content to leave alone?
Brown explains his departure from his predecessors as an appreciation for the rule of law. Legally, according to a 2008 court decision, the governor is supposed to consider rehabilitation and an inmate’s threat to public safety when reviewing parole decisions, and not the nature of the original crime.
Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, Brown called former Governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approaches to parole a “failure… to follow the law.” He said that no governor should override a judicial system that sentences someone to life with the possibility of parole by simply denying them parole, despite their rehabilitation and lack of threat to society. (There are cases where Brown has intervened, citing an inmate’s likelihood to reoffend. About a month ago, he reversed the Parole Board’s decision to let out Christopher Fowler of Yolo County, convicted of killing his girl-friend’s 22-month-old son in 1983.)
Another possibly motivation for Brown’s approach is budgetary. Lifers, a growing prison population largely due to Three Strikes sentencing laws, are also older and therefore more expensive to incarcerate.
And finally, Brown’s take on parole fits into what seems to be shaping up as a rather nuanced political approach to criminal justice matters in general. The governor, who many expected to tow the traditional “tough-on-crime” agenda after the correctional officers union financed his gubernatorial campaign, is all over the place when it comes to issues that generally peg politicians as in one camp, “reformer” or the other, “tough on crime.” Is Brown above the typical California fray when it comes to the politics of crime? And if so, does this signal a shift in mentality in the Golden State or simply a seasoned politician who’s looking more towards retirement than reelection?