In more states, parole is a thing of the past

Several cases in California - and the spread of laws elsewhere - underscore the fall of parole nationwide.

Luis Frias has been something of a model prisoner for 15 years. So much so, that the California state parole board has approved him for release from prison twice.

But in each case, Mr. Frias's family says politics intervened and kept the man, imprisoned for causing the death of a woman during a robbery, behind bars.

In many states across the country, the age-old practice of granting parole has been on the decline in the 1990s. Some states - such as Ohio and Wisconsin - have abolished parole, while others have just outlawed it for violent offenders. It's part and parcel of a public and political mood to get tough on crime, say criminologists.

Yet even in states like California, where parole remains a legal part of the criminal-justice system, the trend is reaching a zenith. Here, the granting of it to serious felons, no matter what their performance in prison, has virtually disappeared.

While that fact shows no sign of creating any public fuss, the apparent abandonment of a practice rooted deep in the American justice system is stirring criticism by some criminologists, some politicians, and even the courts themselves.

The argument for parole

In short, critics say parole is warranted for a small segment of even the most serious offenders. It is written into the law and has served over the years as an incentive for rehabilitating prisoners and making them productive members of society.

Since Democratic Gov. Gray Davis took office in January 1999, the state prison board has recommended parole 18 times. That's a small slice of the 2,000 or so inmates reviewed.

But even the 18 were 18 too many for Mr. Davis. Not a single parole recommendation has been approved by the governor.

"What this means is that the parole function has ceased to operate," even though that function is part of the law and part of sentencing says criminologist Franklin Zimring, at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's really serious when the words in the law lose their meaning."

Sharing alarm over the trend, Democratic state Sen. John Vasconcellos accused the state parole board recently of holding "Kafkaesque hearings in which conclusions have nothing to do with the facts."

Nationally, both political parties have spent the past decade ratcheting up penalties and reducing judicial discretion in the criminal courts. Being tough on crime has become bedrock for political success.

Yet the dynamics in California suggest a mini-backlash to the wholesale disappearance of parole, even for the most serious offenders.

The cases in question do not include prisoners on death row or inmates who have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. It's so-called "term to life" cases where the judges impose sentences for a fixed number of years, but that can extend to life, that parole has historically been granted in some cases.

Davis's actions are consistent with his vow as a candidate to be "death on violent crime." Yet critics of Davis's approach are trying to influence appointments to the state Board of Prison Terms, which the legislature must approve, to create a board more sympathetic to parole.

So far, the governor has had his way. Recently, a Davis-backed member of the board won Senate approval for another term despite objections from Democrats.

Remarkably, a state court has stepped in to defend parole as well. Last year, it ordered that the parole board set a release date for convicted murderer Robert Rosenkrantz.

Legal analysts say the action was unusual, if not unprecedented. They could recall no other case where the parole board was ordered by a court to find a prisoner suitable for release.

The state appealed the ruling, but last month an appeals court sided with the original ruling. The parole board was ordered to hold another parole hearing for Mr. Rosenkrantz this month.

Small percentage getting smaller

The rate of parole for people convicted of serious felonies has traditionally been a small number.

At hearings last year in the California legislature, a former commissioner of the Bureau of Prison Terms estimated that about 5 percent of the cases that came before the parole board were recommended for release. Today, that figure is less than 1 percent, and even those have been blocked by the governor.

California, like many other states, has given its governor power to overrule parole board decisions on cases involving prisoners serving "term to life."

Recent history shows just how potent the issue can be politically. The case of Willie Horton, a convicted killer in Massachusetts who committed rape after being released from prison, helped shatter the presidential bid of Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988. In the 12 years since, state politicians have opted for ever tougher sentencing laws and greatly curtailed parole for high profile offenders.

Meanwhile, inmates like Frias continue to hope for a favorable review each year. Frias's case will come up again before the state parole board in July. His family hopes his exemplary performance in prison, which includes favorable reviews from prison staff and counselors, and his lead role in groups that work with abused children, will show he is ready to rejoin society. "We just try to keep his optimism up," says Frias's sister, Sylvia Carvajal.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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