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California and the West

State Senate Confirms Davis Nominee for Parole Board Seat

May 19, 2000|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis' hard-line policy of denying parole to convicted murderers won a clear vote of support Thursday in the state Senate.

Over the opposition of its liberal leader, the upper chamber confirmed the centrist Democratic governor's appointment of retired Los Angeles policeman Leonard G. Munoz as a state parole commissioner.

The bipartisan 30-4 vote concluded an unusually aggressive lobbying campaign by Davis to win a four-year term for Munoz, a Republican, on the state Board of Prison Terms.

However, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), who voted against Munoz, warned that unless Davis loosens his policies for qualified prisoners, the Senate may abolish the board.

In a floor speech, Burton insisted that he was not advocating opening the prison gates and turning "Charles Manson out on the street." But he charged that the board's policy of rejecting qualified inmates, including murderers, kidnappers and other lifers, had reached beyond what the law allows.

He noted that in a recent case involving a murderer who became a model prisoner, the board was ordered by a Superior Court judge to set a parole date.

The board, including Commissioner Munoz, set the date but then found the prisoner, Steven Rosenkrantz, to be unsuitable for parole. A state appeals court last month sided with the lower court and ordered a parole date to be set.

"They are so egregious in their application of the law that the courts have moved in," Burton said of parole commissioners, who meet in three-member panels at prisons to hear appeals for freedom.

Burton demanded that the board provide due process to prisoners, "pay attention" to their parole plans and give greater weight to the performance of criminals who have become model prisoners and who would not pose threats to public safety if released.

Otherwise, he said at a confirmation hearing of the Rules Committee, "I'd just as soon zero it out [of the board's budget], save the money and give it to special education."

Hilary McLean, a Davis spokeswoman, described the governor as pleased that Munoz won confirmation, but dismissed allegations that the board operated beyond the law.

Legislative sources suggested that Munoz, whose confirmation had been snagged for weeks, won easy final approval, not only because of Davis' lobbying, but for reasons of political survival: Democrats running for election did not want to cast votes that opponents could cite as being soft on criminals.

Last year, of the 1,942 life-termers the board considered for parole, only one prisoner eventually was freed, the board said.

The board recommended parole for 16 inmates, but Davis rejected 10 and returned the remaining six to the full board for reconsideration.

Of these, a spokeswoman said, the board reversed itself in four cases, paroled the one prisoner and has not issued a decision in the last case.

But Burton, and fellow Democratic Sens. John Vasconcellos of Santa Clara and Richard Polanco of Los Angeles, have charged Davis' hard line on parole is tilted so heavily in favor of punishment that it ignores the concept of redemption.

In March, Burton sank Davis' reappointment of Republican James W. Nielsen on grounds that a federal court had ruled that Nielsen and the commissioners violated the rights of physically and mentally disabled prisoners.

Davis made clear in the case of Munoz that he was not going to lose another appointee to the Senate. He waged what some senators described as a hard-charging lobbying campaign on behalf of Munoz.

"It was big," said Polanco, who earlier had demanded that the Senate defeat Munoz for fear that Munoz would not be an "independent" voice on the board.

However, on Thursday, Polanco abstained from the confirmation vote. He said he had met privately with the nominee, examined cases in which Munoz had split with other board members and came away persuaded that Munoz was more independent than he first believed, but not enough to get his favorable vote.

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