When a court orders the release of a lifer on parole, statistics show the parolee does not return to prison. But when the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) releases a lifer, some wind up back behind bars.
Why this discrepancy exists remains a mystery, but it is confirmed by recently released statistics from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
Some inmates serving life sentences and who were later denied release by the state parole board eventually took their cases to court and successfully gained their release. These lifers released by court order have a zero percent rate of recidivism.
Two reports on recidivism published late last year by CDCR reveal that inmates released by court order in fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13 never returned to prison.
The report for 2011-12 fiscal year said, “Of the 349 lifers released by the BPH, 3.2 percent (11 offenders) were convicted of a new crime during the three-year follow-up period. None of the 10 lifers who were released by court order were convicted of a new crime during the three-year follow-up period.”
The overall CDCR recidivism rate for all prisoners released during the same time period was 54.3 percent, according to the report.
The report for the follow- ing fiscal year said, “Of the 478 offenders released by the BPH, 4.2 percent (20 offenders) were convicted of a new crime during the three-year follow-up period. Of the 14 offenders released by other means (e.g., court order), none were convicted of a new crime during the three-year follow-up period.”
The overall recidivism rate for that year was 46.1 percent. California defines recidivism as “conviction of a new felony or misdemeanor committed within three years of release from custody or committed within three years of placement on supervision for a previous criminal conviction,” according to both reports. “Generally, offenders sentenced to an indeterminate term (a life sentence) are released only after the (state parole board) has found them suitable for parole or the court orders their release,” the CDCR reported.
Under the California Public Records Act, the San Quentin News requested CDCR numbers on lifers released by court order in the last 20 years after they challenged state parole board denials. The News also requested the difference in recidivism rates between the two groups.
The CDCR said it has components of the information, but it would have to “create lists and computer programs to extract the information,” which would be costly and labor intensive.
Because lifers released on parole in California have such a low recidivism rate, the News requested data on lifers who were returned to custody in the last 20 years. CDCR reported that, until recently, it “made no distinction in its tracking between people released after a suit- ability grant, governor’s reversal and then court intervention, etc. They were all lumped together as BPH grants (of parole).”
However, in 2016, the BPH requested the department’s Office of Research to include recidivism data on inmates who fall into the “other releases” category. Included in this group would be some prisoners initially denied parole by the board on the basis of criteria which a judge later rejected, and the court ordered their release.
Information was extracted from CDCR’s Strategic Offender Management System (SOMS), to identify inmates released in both fiscal years “to determine which released offenders returned to state prison during the three-year follow-up period,” the report for the 2012-13 fiscal year stated.
The CDCR reported that it “presents the 2017 Outcome Evaluation Report, part of an annual series, which examines arrest, conviction, and return-to-prison rates for offenders released from CDCR adult institutions during a given fiscal year.”
“My hope is that this information will provide new insights to policy-makers and correctional stakeholders that will be useful in moving the state forward with regard to efforts that increase public safety through the reduction of recidivism,” said CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan in a memo last year.
The Indeterminate Sentencing Law was established in 1917 under Penal Code Section 1168. It allowed judges to determine a range of time to serve in prison for those convicted of a felony. Those convicted for the same crimes could spend different lengths of time in prison, depending on several factors, such as a prisoner’s individual conduct while incarcerated.
When the minimum length of sentence was completed, inmates went before a parole board that determined their release date. In 1977, the In- determinate Sentence Law was replaced by the Determinate Sentencing Law (DSL) under Penal Code Section 1170.
After the enactment of the DSL, only lifers and third-strikers are considered “indeterminately” sentenced, because the BPH determines their release date.
Overall, recidivism in California’s prison system has dropped. For example, CDCR numbers for fiscal year 2002-2003 show 103,934 inmates released from state custody. In the three-year follow-up period, 68,810 were returned to custody, bringing the state’s recidivism rate to 66.2 percent.