Record number of Calif. lifers paroled in last 3 years; experts say situation is complicated

Since taking office in 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown has affirmed a record number of parole board recommendations to release prisoners with life sentences from California prisons, including two from Humboldt County.

About two decades ago, California became the fourth state to give governors the final decision on whether a prisoner with a life sentence receives parole. Brown has approved parole for nearly 1,400 prisoners over the last three years. His predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, authorized the release of 557 lifers during his time in office, and Gov. Gray Davis approved the release of two lifers.

While two lifers from Humboldt County were granted parole during Brown's term, another five were denied release.

Eureka attorney Peter Martin said it's about time more offenders are given parole.

"For years under Republican governors, it was so rare that lifers would be offered parole, attorneys would tell their clients to not ever take a life sentence because they would probably never get out," Martin said. "I think this is long overdue."

Executive Director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance Christine Ward disagreed. She said the releases are an injustice to the victims, and the parolees could pose a danger to the public.

"This is playing Russian roulette with public safety and a change of philosophy that can be dangerous," Ward said.

California is currently grappling with court orders to ease a decades-long prison crowding crisis, although Brown's office said that plays no role in parole decisions. More than 80 percent of lifers are in prison for murder, while the remaining are mostly rapists or kidnappers. Lifers currently represent one-quarter of California's prison population and the average age for a paroled lifer is 50.

"Brown has a tough job," said Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos. "Yes, for what the offenders did, maybe they should never walk the streets again, but many of these lifers released on parole aren't going to walk the streets again. A lot of them are elderly, aged people who did terrible things a long time ago. California is paying for their medical expenses, which in a prison-type situation are very expensive."

Gallegos said he doesn't think Brown is being insensitive to crime victims.

"We shouldn't be spending every dollar we have on these people," Gallegos said. "We need to spend money on things such as education and infrastructure."

Josh Meisel, an associate professor of sociology at Humboldt State University, said it's not surprising that Brown has recognized the state needs to consider and grant parole to offenders who have served long sentences.

"If the parole board is willing to grant parole, the governor should follow their recommendation," Meisel said. "The political climate makes it difficult for governors to historically grant parole, because public reactions to this have to be taken into account and it often becomes an obstacle. People don't always understand that many offenders are served life sentences with the possibility of parole later."

Meisel said it's pretty unusual for an offender to actually serve their whole natural life in prison, and the vast majority don't reoffend, although there are always exceptions. He said a minority of parolees go on to commit heinous crimes, but those who do make headlines.

"The majority of offenders who go to prison do get out someday," Meisel said. "Certainly, from a research position, the kind of offenses that offenders get served life sentences for, homicide or attempted homicide, have relatively low recidivism rates. Offenders who have already served 10 to 15 years, especially, are remarkably different than when they were first sentenced."

Meisel said what needs to be discussed more is the function of parole.

"Historically, parole was created to reduce overcrowding," Meisel said. "Parole needs to be utilized in such a way that ensures a successful reintegration of offenders back into society."

Jillian Singh can be reached at 441-0509 or