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Stanford Criminal Justice Center
Stanford Criminal Justice Center

When California denies a murderer parole, should it need a reason?

The title of this post is the title of a noteworthy article in today’s LA Times on the question of whether, and on what basis, life prisoners in California should be released on parole.

The issue is this – in cases involving inmates who are indisputably eligible for release on parole, may the state of California (in particular, the Governor) refuse to grant release on the basis of the seriousness of the original crime, without making a specific finding that the inmate poses a current threat to public safety?

In 2008, the state Supreme Court decided in In re Lawrence that under state law the Governor must be able to demonstrate a current threat to public safety in order to deny parole to an eligible inmate. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is currently considering whether a denial of parole without a finding of current threat to public safety violates the US Constitution.

The LA Times piece is notable first for its calling attention to this important issue and second for its presentation of the many differing viewpoints on the purpose of life sentences.

Harriet Salarno, who has been calling attention to the needs of California crime victims for decades, says life sentences should serve as a deterrent: “For the sake of public safety — that’s what we have life sentences for … That should be a deterrent to crime: that you won’t ever get out if you get a life sentence.”

Bill Schmidt, an attorney who represents life-sentenced inmates, argues that in cases where the legislature has already determined that an inmate should be eligible for release on parole, the Governor lacks the authority to refuse release: “Where does the law give the subjective authority for the governor or the board to say, ‘No, your crime was so horrendous that we’re not ever going to let you out’?”.

Laurie Serafino, a professor at Pepperdine, points to the always vexing question of how the criminal justice system can best balance the need to hold offenders accountable with the need to help offenders reintegrate successfully into society: “It goes back to the question of whether we want sentences to be punitive and how to weigh rehabilitation versus punishment.”

The issue of how California treats its life inmates is a pressing one both because of its moral implications and because of the very real need for the state to reduce its unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons. The LA Times should be commended for calling attention to it.

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