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Davis' Parole Policy Raises Questions


Some convicts go to prison and hang on to their criminal ways. Others wallow in bitterness, counting their days of confinement. Then there are the exceptions--inmates like David Ramos.

Convicted of murder for giving a ride to a killer, Ramos has been locked up for 21 years. It has not been wasted time. He has mastered two trades, earned a college degree and, most exceptionally, taught more than 1,000 prisoners to read.

That record was enough for the state parole board. In January, its members--a famously cautious group--congratulated Ramos and declared him ready to go home.

In most states, that would have been it. Ramos, 40, would have packed his belongings and walked out the prison gate. But in California, an unusual law gives the governor a say over his fate. And Gov. Gray Davis said no.

The ruling was not a surprise. Since taking office, Davis has rejected freedom for 108 killers approved for release by his own parole board--a record that makes him far less forgiving than his GOP predecessor, Pete Wilson. Just two murderers have been released by Davis, both of them battered women who had shot their abusers.

That pattern has drawn praise from victims' advocates but also criticism from legislators, inmates' families and a growing group of judges. Two cases testing the extent of the governor's power over parole await action by the state Supreme Court, perhaps as early as this fall.

California is one of only three states--along with Oklahoma and Maryland--that give governors veto power over parole. Some say such authority provides society an extra measure of protection. But many national parole experts say granting this power to an elected official is bad public policy, politicizing the task of deciding which inmates are rehabilitated and should go free.

Indeed, as in California, governors in Oklahoma and Maryland have taken rigid stances on parole. Oklahoma's Gov. Frank Keating even vowed, like Davis, that during his tenure murderers "will not be released. Period. Exclamation point."

"It's inevitable," said Gail Hughes, executive director of the Assn. of Paroling Authorities International. "If governors release a murderer, they appear soft on crime and risk another Willie Horton ruining their political future."

Horton is the Massachusetts murderer who raped a woman while on a weekend furlough allowed when Michael Dukakis was governor of the state. In the 1988 presidential race, then-Vice President George Bush used the Horton episode to bash Dukakis, contributing to the Democrat's defeat.

Other high-profile cases in California--including the kidnapping and murder of a Petaluma 12-year-old, Polly Klaas, by a repeat felon--underscored the Horton lesson for elected officials: You can't be too tough.

"No politician ever gets in trouble for not letting a prisoner out," said Susan Estrich, who was Dukakis' presidential campaign manager and now teaches law at USC. "The political risk is all in one direction."

The governor's deputy press secretary, Byron Tucker, said such political perils have no bearing on the governor's parole decisions. Despite Davis' 1999 vow that no murderer would go free on his watch, the governor judges each inmate on the evidence, Tucker said.

He added, however, that Davis evaluates eligible prisoners with the feelings of crime victims foremost in his mind: "For them, there is no parole from the loss of their loved ones," Tucker said.

Paroles are handed down by the nine-member Board of Prison Terms, appointed by the governor. Each year the board holds about 3,100 hearings for murderers, rapists and kidnappers who have served their minimum terms and become eligible for parole. A much smaller number of inmates convicted of more heinous killings are ineligible for parole or on death row.

Board members grant or deny parole on the basis of careful study of the crime, the inmate's behavior while incarcerated and reports from prison psychiatrists. The law suggests that parole must be granted unless the review shows the prisoner remains dangerous, but the board's discretion is broad and parole grants are rare. Today, about 1% of those evaluated are cleared for release.

California's governor was brought into this process through a 1988 ballot initiative, Proposition 89. The measure was pushed by former Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican angered by his inability to prevent the release of a murderer and rapist named William Archie Fain.

Proposition 89 passed with 55% of the vote, and its sponsor in the Legislature, former Sen. Daniel Boatwright (D-Concord), said it has protected Californians from the release of dangerous criminals.

"I think Davis is doing exactly what the people want him to do," said Boatwright, now a lobbyist. "It's better to err on the side of caution."

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