August 23, 2008

Calif. ruling: Release rehabilitated prisoners

California has a long reputation of denying parole to all "lifers," no matter how old, sick, or demonstrably rehabilitated. Republican Gov. Schwarzenegger has been slightly more lenient than his Democrat predecessor, releasing 192 lifers as compared with Gov. Davis' 9 - but that's still only about one percent of the 16,000 who were eligible.

This week, however, for the first time in recent history, the state's high court ruled in favor of a prisoner in a parole case, upholding the July 2007 release of a woman who had fatally shot and stabbed her lover's wife with a potato peeler. The state's parole board had approved the release of Sandra Davis Lawrence four times since 1993, but three governors, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, overturned the board's decisions. Lawrence spent almost 24 years in prison.

In its 4-3 ruling, the court cited "overwhelming" evidence of Lawrence's rehabilitation while in prison and her suitability for parole, and said parole decisions must be based on evidence of present danger to the public and not merely the brutality of a crime.

The standard, ruled the Court, is as follows:
The Board or the Governor may base a denial-of-parole decision upon the circumstances of the offense, or upon other immutable facts such as an inmate’s criminal history, but some evidence will support such reliance only if those facts support the ultimate conclusion that an inmate continues to pose an unreasonable risk to public safety. Accordingly, the relevant inquiry for a reviewing court is not merely whether an inmate’s crime was especially callous, or shockingly vicious or lethal, but whether the identified facts are probative to the central issue of current dangerousness when considered in light of the full record before the [Parole] Board or the Governor.
UC Irvine Law Professor Carrie L. Hempel, who represented Lawrence as part of a legal clinic at USC, said the court's decision "sends a clear message to prisoners that . . . if they work really hard to rehabilitate themselves they are going to get some justice."

The Los Angeles Times has in-depth coverage. The full ruling is HERE. Photo credit: L.A. Times.

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