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Parole Must Be Possible

September 30, 2002

The California Board of Prison Terms is no nest of bleeding hearts. The eight men and women appointed by Gov. Gray Davis (one seat is vacant) will hold some 4,500 hearings this year for murderers, rapists and kidnappers who have served their minimum terms and have become eligible for parole.

Board members, many of whom have law enforcement backgrounds, have no patience with the sob stories told by hardened felons or with their sniveling promises to live an honest life.

But if a chief aim of prison is to keep society safe, isn't there a point at which some prisoners deemed by the board to no longer be a threat can be let go? That is the question the state Supreme Court is about to decide.

In January, the parole board was persuaded that David Ramos deserved a new start. Ramos, 40, has been locked up for 21 years for driving a killer to the scene. During that time he has earned a college degree, learned a trade and taught more than 1,000 prisoners to read.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 04, 2002 Home Edition California Part B Page 16 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Parole decisions--An editorial Sept. 30 incorrectly stated the year the governor acquired veto authority over the state Board of Prison Terms' parole decisions. The correct year was 1988.

The board also has cleared Mark Smith for release. Smith has served 17 years behind bars for his part in a murder and now suffers from AIDS, which renders him costlier to incarcerate as he becomes sicker and less dangerous.

Davis blocked release in each case based on a 1998 law that gives the governor veto power over paroles.

Davis vowed when he took office that he would release no convicted murderers. In four years, he has freed only two of the 135 murderers the board recommended for parole. Both are women who alleged that they were driven to murder after years of domestic abuse.

Ramos, Smith and a handful of others granted parole and blocked by Davis have brought suit to win their release.

Two state appeals court panels said Davis lacks the constitutional power to continue to hold inmates that the parole board has found suitable for release, but a third court this month upheld the governor's authority. The state Supreme Court, which takes up this issue next month, will have the final word.

The state's primary responsibility is to protect people from killers and rapists by keeping them locked up.

Yet the state also has an obligation to try to rehabilitate these men and women for a productive life after they've served their time. And it must allow for the release of those who it judges do not pose a threat.

The majority of the gangbangers and thugs in California's prisons don't begin to rise to this challenge. But for those few who do, parole should remain more than a theoretical option, and the high court should say so.

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