By Wayne Boatwright
California is releasing more lifers on parole, according to a Stanford University report.
Between 2008 and 2015, the parole grant rate increased from 8 to 25 percent for those who appeared before the Parole Board in 2015.
“Parole has been viewed increasingly as a means of managing the state prison population,” according to the April 2016 Federal Sentencing Reporter (Stanford Report).
This has not always been the case. Between 1980 and 2008, the grant rate for lifers was virtually zero. Not only were there few grants, California’s reliance on indeterminate life sentences differs significantly from other states.
While California has approximately 35,000 lifers, Texas is in second place with fewer than 9,000. More than 30 percent of California’s prison population is serving indeterminate life sentences, followed by Utah (29.2 percent) and Nevada (21.5 percent).
The Stanford Report authors acknowledge that “the number is enormous, representing not only a significant percentage of California prisoners, but a substantial portion of the nation’s lifers.”
The developing trend toward parole grants and release decisions is due to the courts, legislation and Gov. Jerry Brown.
The California Supreme Court issued two rulings in 2008 (In re Lawrence and In re Shaputis) that said an inmate could not be denied parole based solely on the outrageousness of the crime committed. Rather, the assessment must be based on the “current dangerousness” of the inmate.
These rulings were counter-balanced with the passage of Proposition 9, Marsy’s Law, in November 2008. Prior to 2008, the default denial length was one year. Marsy’s Law changed parole denials’ default length to 15 years, which could only be reduced where there was “clear and convincing evidence that safety considerations did not require longer incarceration.”
Even after the passage of Marsy’s Law, the parole grant rate continued to increase. The 2011 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Plata ruling that California’s overcrowded prisons violate the Eighth Amendment has forced the state to take numerous actions to reduce prison population.
With lifers as a significant portion of California’s inmate population, Governor Brown led a restart of the parole process. Brown appointed Jennifer Shaffer as the executive officer of the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) in 2011.
Shaffer has overseen both administrative changes and new professional development training resulting in an increase in grant rates to over 25 percent in 2015. These suitability findings are overturned rarely under Brown. Since 2011, Brown has reversed fewer than 20 percent of the rising number of BPH grants.
The Stanford Report brings Money Ball-style statistical reasoning to understanding the BPH decision-making process. The next article in this series will present a crude statistical model for predicting outcomes.
The model is based on knowledge — meaning anything that increases your ability to predict an outcome. It will help you make better predictions than trusting your cell-mate. In the Stanford Report, the statistical model has over 150 different factors and it determines how much weight to give each particular factor.
A copy of the above-mentioned Stanford Report is available through the Prison University Project (PUP) to all PUP students.