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An Autopilot Parole Policy

April 03, 2002

Mark Smith has served 17 years in prison for his part in a drug- related killing. He suffers from AIDS, cancer, heart disease and progressive dementia. Because of the time he has been behind bars, his exemplary behavior as a prisoner and his fragile medical condition, the state Board of Prison Terms recommended that he be paroled. That was almost two years ago.

Gov. Gray Davis overturned the board's parole recommendation, in essence sentencing Smith to die in custody. It would seem that in Davis' reelection-focused mind, any parolee, even one as sick as Smith, could be the star in an attack ad from his gubernatorial opponent.

Last month a Los Angeles judge overruled Davis and ordered Smith's release, saying there was no evidence to support the governor's action. The judge also said Davis had wrongly labeled Smith a killer rather than an accomplice in the case. Tuesday, Chief Justice Ronald M. George temporarily stayed Smith's release pending review by the entire California Supreme Court.

We hope that the court agrees with the Los Angeles judge and lets Smith go. Davis' rigid and politically driven parole policy seems meant to protect himself from any campaign accusations that he is "soft on crime." But it is costly to taxpayers and unfair to those few inmates who deserve parole and threatens to usurp the parole board's lawful authority.

Since Davis took office in 1999, the Board of Prison Terms, hardly a hotbed of bleeding hearts, has found 82 convicted killers suitable for parole, about 1% of all the cases that came before it. California law allows the governor to block parole in cases where he disagrees with the board's decision or to ask the board to reconsider.

However, Davis took office vowing that no murderers would go free on his watch, no matter the circumstances. He has made exactly one exception, for a woman who shot her abusive boyfriend. The governor relented in that case--no doubt with an eye toward women voters--having concluded that she might never have been convicted had the battered-woman legal defense been available at the time of her trial.

Smith's case represents the second time a court has rebuked Davis for his hard line. The first involved a man convicted at age 18 of second-degree murder for the 1985 killing of a Calabasas schoolmate who had threatened to expose him as a homosexual. Although the governor insisted that the inmate posed a "significant risk to society," an appeals court this year said Davis had exceeded his authority to decide paroles, which the court said was not absolute.

Californians are poorly served by the governor's harsh approach. State law sets up a process to determine which few inmates merit release. Davis' deathly fear of the soft-on-crime tag is not reason enough to put his veto power on autopilot.

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