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More Killers Gaining Parole

Under Schwarzenegger, 48 murderers have been released in less than a year. In his five years as governor, Gray Davis freed just eight.

September 18, 2004|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — For all his tough-guy swagger, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is quietly pursuing one of the most permissive parole policies California has seen in years, freeing convicted murderers in numbers that dwarf those of his two predecessors.

In less than a year in office, Schwarzenegger has approved parole for 48 people serving life terms for murder. Former Gov. Gray Davis released eight in his five years in office.

The 48, plus 10 inmates serving life terms for other offenses, have been paroled with Schwarzenegger's consent. That's as many as were released in a six-year span in the 1990s covering most of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's tenure.

The governor was not available for comment. But spokeswoman Terri Carbaugh said Schwarzenegger "believes that people can reform and be reformed.... When he sits down with his attorneys to review parole matters, he's not thinking about the political consequences. He's thinking about public safety and the individual at hand."

The state Board of Prison Terms, led by a Schwarzenegger appointee, is paroling inmates at seven times the rate under Wilson. In only two of the last 13 years has the board approved parole for as many as 5% of the inmates it considered for release. Through August of this year, the figure was 7%.

"It certainly provides quite a bit of hope for the thousands of lifers who thought they had no hope of under Gov. Davis," said Keith Wattley, staff attorney for the Prison Law Office near San Quentin State Prison, which provides legal services to inmates.

"However, you have to keep in mind that these are still really low numbers. It's really the cream of the cream of the crop who ever get to the governor's office. While there's some hope, it's still a bad situation for them."

For a governor, particularly one with larger political aspirations, releasing prison inmates carries potentially devastating consequences. Much of the 1988 presidential race turned on Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis' parole policies in Massachusetts, after an inmate named Willie Horton attacked a couple while on furlough.

Davis paroled murderers on the rarest of occasions, routinely using the governor's veto power to overturn his own board's parole awards. The state Supreme Court upheld his right to do so in a 2002 ruling. The court said the governor was free to deny parole even in cases in which an inmate had a spotless record in prison

Davis once voiced the view that even murderers with second-degree convictions should serve out life sentences, without exception.

"If you take someone else's life, forget it," Davis said in an interview early in his first term.

"Compared to Gray Davis, Attila the Hun would look moderate," said Franklin Zimring, a law professor who runs the criminal justice research program at UC Berkeley.

Schwarzenegger may have less to fear, he added. With a public image forged in movie roles of heroic cops -- battling drug dealers, criminals, and even Satan -- "The Terminator" may have more space than his predecessors to free prisoners without appearing soft on crime.

"He doesn't have real [political] base worries right now," Zimring said.

State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) said Schwarzenegger has guts and "knows who he is and isn't afraid of what people think."

At issue are inmates serving life terms, with the possibility of parole, for murder, kidnapping and other offenses. Each year, the nine-member parole board -- made up of gubernatorial appointees serving staggered terms -- holds thousands of hearings at California prisons, considering whether eligible inmates are suitable for release.

If the board votes for parole, the case goes to the governor, who has the power to let the decision stand or keep the inmate locked up.

Schwarzenegger is not only upholding board rulings more often, he appears to be shaping a panel that is more apt to let people out.

The governor's policies are playing out at a time when the murder rate is dropping.

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said Friday that the state's 2003 homicide rate dropped slightly from 2002. The 2003 rate of about 6.7 homicides per 100,000 residents represents a drop of more than 40% since 1994, when it was 11.5 per 100,000 residents, he said.

In a move that may signal Schwarzenegger's direction, the governor dropped his support for a nominee to the parole board who had served for two months while awaiting Senate confirmation. Richard Loa had drawn sharp complaints from inmate attorneys for his questioning of prisoners seeking parole.

Loa, a Palmdale city councilman who supported Schwarzenegger in the recall campaign, stepped down from the board in August amid warnings from Burton that he would not win Senate confirmation. Schwarzenegger chose not to fight.

"We expressed our concern and the fact that confirmation would be problematic," Burton said. "They looked into it and on their own decided he wasn't the type of person for the board.''

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