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The Empty Promise of Parole

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G’morning folks. Bean of A Bird and a Bottle here, guest posting for a few days while Scott is off doing professorial things. Over at my place, I write about criminal justice, feminism, and just about anything else I find interesting. I’ll do much the same here. Thanks for having me.

And away we go…

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Ninety-four-year-old John Rodriguez has a Bronze Star from World War II. He uses a walker, is arthritic, and can barely hear, though he is still of sound mind. He is a recovering alcoholic who regularly attends AA meetings. He goes to a sweat lodge every Sunday. And he’s the oldest person incarcerated in California’s massive state prison system.

According to an L.A. Times story yesterday, Rodriguez murdered his wife in a drunken rage in 1981 (at age 68) and was sentenced to 16 years to life, with the possibility of parole after serving the minimum sentence.

It’s been over 25 years. Rodriguez, who has been a model prisoner, has been rejected for parole six times. The three governors who have rejected the recommendations for his parole say he is still a danger to society. From the LA Times article:

Schwarzenegger has already turned him down once, saying that the “gravity alone of the murder” is enough to conclude that Rodriguez would pose an “unreasonable public safety risk.”

Because of his age, Rodriguez may be a particularly interesting – or maybe sympathetic – case. But he’s one of hundreds or even thousands of incarcerated men and women for whom the promise of parole is utterly empty. In California, a state referendum allows the governor to overturn a parole board recommendation for release for people who face life sentences. the provisions has had a devastating effect:

Since 1988, when California voters gave the governor the power to overrule parole board recommendations for “lifers,” the number from that category who have been freed has slowed to a trickle.

Gov. Gray Davis released only six lifers during his five-year tenure.

But it’s not only California. In New York, particularly under Gov. Pataki, parole was elusive for people who had been found guilty of murders or manslaughter. In case after case, parole was denied to men and women based solely on the gravity of the crimes they had committed. If that’s the only criteria, why even have parole? The parole decision may be based in part on the gravity of the underlying offense, but not solely on that — otherwise people convicted of violent crimes would get only determinate sentences (say, 10 years, instead of 10 to 17 years). Parole boards and the governors who approve their decisions should consider the offense, but only as one among many other factors.

It’s understandable that men who murder their wives or women who accidentally kill while stealing money for drugs (as in the case of Jean Coaxum) are not the most sympathetic cases with which to argue for leniency. But by tying parole to a long-ago crime alone, we rob it of its power and virtually throw away the keys to people’s cells. I’m sure that’s what many lawmakers and citizens want. Yet this “solution” is not that at all — it’s only a band-aid over the larger problem: the lack of restorative justice programs in American prisons, a situation enabled by the sense that prison today restrains but does not rehabilitate.

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