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California and the West

Angry Lawmakers Ax Parole Board Budget

Legislature: Move comes after repeated criticism of the panel for delays in inmate hearings and other problems.

April 23, 2001|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A state Senate panel has eliminated the state parole board's budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a rare tactical move that reflects some lawmakers' deep frustration with how California treats inmates eligible for release.

The panel erased the Board of Prison Terms' $28.4 million in funding on grounds that it has done little to fix problems exposed by the Legislature and others during the past two years.

"If they're not doing their job, then why are we funding this operation with tens of millions of taxpayer dollars?" asked Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Senate subcommittee that wiped out the board's budget Wednesday.

"Maybe this will get their attention," added Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), a leading critic of the board.

Davis administration officials characterized the move as a tactic that legislators sometimes use to make a point or extract concessions during the budget process. But though funding for a program is often sliced, it is rare for the budget of an entire board or department to be obliterated.

Polanco said no money would be restored until lawmakers get "concrete answers and a detailed plan" addressing several concerns.

One is the board's failure to provide timely parole hearings to inmates as required by law. The board has a backlog of more than 2,000 cases, and some prisoners' hearings--their only forum for winning freedom--are delayed by a year or more.

Senators also want an overhaul of the multilayered process for reviewing each parole granted by the board, a process widely criticized for leading to reversals based on technicalities.

In some cases, for example, inmates are approved for release by the board but see their freedom canceled because the tape recorder used at their parole hearing malfunctioned. The inmates are then entitled to a new hearing, but are sometimes denied parole at that second review.

"The inmates should not be the ones who pay because the board's equipment doesn't work right," said Keith Wattley of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which helps inmates with legal matters. "It's very unfair."

John Winn, the board's chief legal counsel, confirmed that balky tape recorders have caused inmates to lose their parole dates. The malfunctions lead to incomplete hearing transcripts, so board members assigned to review the parole grants automatically invalidate them because they lack an accurate record to judge.

"I believe we've taken care of that problem," Winn said. "At least I haven't heard of any [malfunctions] in the past few months."

But merely fixing equipment glitches is not enough, Polanco and other critics say. The senator said he expects the board to streamline its decision review procedure and prove to him that it respects the due process rights of inmates.

"I want to know why, if someone has already been found suitable [for release], that approval gets overturned on review," Polanco said. "Is that a way to circumvent the law and keep people from getting parole dates? It sometimes looks that way."

Winn acknowledged that the decision review process typically takes longer than the 60 days required by law, saying, "We agree we need to speed that up." As for other problems, he said, "If the process needs to be fixed, we'll do what we can to fix it."

The unusual action by the Senate budget panel is the latest slap at the battered parole board, which, along with Gov. Gray Davis, has been under attack from inmates' families, religious leaders and lawmakers for releasing only a small percentage of eligible inmates.

The nine-member board, appointed by the governor, annually evaluates about 23,000 prisoners serving sentences of life with the possibility of parole, most of them having been convicted of murder, attempted murder, arson or kidnapping. A smaller group convicted of more heinous crimes are ineligible for parole.

After inmates serve a minimum term, they appear before a three-member panel of the board that, under the law, must set a release date unless the prisoner remains a danger to society or committed an offense so grave that it requires more time behind bars.

In recent years, critics have faulted the board--and Davis--for rejecting parole for many inmates who have good records in custody and have been judged safe bets by prison psychiatrists. Among them is Robert Rosenkrantz, a murderer from Calabasas who has sued the governor for refusing to free him.

One ongoing issue irking Polanco and other senators involves the backlog of parole hearings that subjects inmates to long waits to appear before the board. Last month, the Prison Law Office, representing 31 inmates, sued the board over the delinquent hearings, claiming the delays violate state law.

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