SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Nearly 1,400 lifers in California’s prisons were released during the past three years in a sharp turnaround in a state where murderers and others sentenced to life with the possibility of parole almost never got out.
Gov. Jerry Brown let a record number of inmates with life sentences out since he took office in January 2011, and he has gone along with the parole board about 82 percent of the time.
Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, authorized the release of 557 lifers during his six-year term, sustaining the board at a 27 percent clip. Before that, Gov. Gray Davis — during three years — approved the release of two.
This dramatic shift in releases under Brown comes as the state grapples with court orders to ease a decadeslong prison crowding crisis that has seen triple bunking, prison gyms turned into dormitories and inmates shipped out of state.
Crime victims and their advocates said the releases are an injustice to the victims and the parolees could pose a danger to the public. More than 80 percent of lifers are in prison for murder, while the remaining are mostly rapists and kidnappers.
“This is playing Russian roulette with public safety,” said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance. “This is a change of philosophy that can be dangerous.”
Brown said he is bound by court orders that require state officials to ease the stringent parole requirements that dramatically increased the time murderers spend in prison.
Today, an inmate convicted of first-degree murders can expect to serve an average of 27 years— almost twice what it was two decades ago before California became the fourth state to give governors the politically fraught final decision on lifer paroles.
Since then, the number of lifers has grown from 9,000 to 35,000 inmates, representing a quarter of the state prison population.