Governor Brown takes 180-degree turn on parole for lifers

Ernest Morgan being greeted by his mother Hilda McCline on 5/12/11. Photo by Nancy Mullane.

While many prisoners ask to be released for medical reasons, others seek to get out because they have turned their lives around, even when they’ve committed the worst possible crimes.

Often though, those serving time for murder, for example, are denied parole, even if they're eligible. That's because for 20 years, the Governor's office has had the authroity to reverse parole decisions and keep those offenders in prison, even if they were approved for release on parole. And that has been the trend, until now.

Since he took office a little over five months ago, Governor Jerry Brown is allowing the parole board’s decision to stand for 80% of lifers found suitable to be released. That’s a significant shift, a reversal of the policies of the past four governors, who cancelled or reversed the parole for 8 out of every 10 lifers found suitable for parole by the governor’s own parole board.

KALW’s Nancy Mullane has been following the stories of prisoners inside San Quentin State Prison who are serving life sentences for murder. She joined KALW's Hana Baba in studio.

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HANA BABA: So Nancy, this is a radical departure for Governor Brown. But it’s a little confusing. These inmates are in for life sentences. Life. So how can some be released from prison?

MULLANE: Well, let’s talk a little bit about their sentences. If you commit murder in California, you can be sentenced in a number of ways. First the person can be sentenced to death. Right now, in California about 700 people are living on death row. The person can also be given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. That literally means they never get out of prison. And today, California prisons house more than 4,100 people who are serving life without parole.

BABA: And then there are lifers who can be paroled?

MULLANE: Right. The person can be given a life sentence with the possibility of parole. First degree murderers can get a 25 years-to-life sentence. They become eligible for parole after about 20 years in prison. People who commit second-degree murder are usually given 15 years to life and they automatically become eligible to go before a parole board after about 12 years.

BABA: So you’ve spent quite a bit of time with lifers at San Quentin.

MULLANE: Yes. For the past four years, I’ve been documenting the parole process for lifers. And to help illustrate Governor Brown’s new attitude, I’m going to tell the story of one prisoner serving a life sentence inside San Quentin.

Ernest Morgan shot and killed his 14-year-old step sister in 1987 while he was stealing from his stepfather’s Oakland apartment. He was 18 years old at the time and was sentenced to 15 years to life for the murder. Over the past 24 years, while he’s been in prison, Morgan has gotten an education, he’s helped found a number of self-help rehabilitation programs, and, essentially, he became a model inmate.

In 2009, after he’d had served 22 years, the parole board found him suitable for release. But then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed the board’s decision.

So last December, Morgan went before the board for his sixth time. I interviewed him shortly after the hearing. And here he is, talking about the moment when one of the parole commissioners announced their decision:

ERNEST MORGAN: She started talking and I’d already buried my face in my hands, and my elbows were on the table because I’m expecting the worst of news, and I hear her say, “Mr. Morgan has been found suitable of parole.”

Then she started saying something else, but I stopped, because I know I didn’t just hear that, and I looked up at my lawyer, and she’s sitting up here with a big grin on her face, and I said, “I know she didn’t just say that.”

And I put my face back in my hands and she said, “The reason you’ve been found suitable…” And as soon as she said it the second time, which was like five or ten seconds from the first time, I just lost all control of my body. My head dropped. Almost hit the table and I just started crying.

It was something I’d been waiting for for a long time. I’d finally gotten to the point where people could say, “Okay. He’s a different man. He’s a changed man.”

BABA: That’s the voice of Ernest Morgan, a convicted murderer who was serving a life sentence, speaking about how he felt when a parole board granted him his release from prison. This is Crosscurrents, from KALW News. I’m Hana Baba here with Nancy Mullane, who has been reporting on the parole process of lifers in California for the past four years.

So, Nancy, tell me about this parole board that has the power to determine whether a convicted murderer should stay locked up or go free.

MULLANE: It’s a board of commissioners appointed by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate. Governor Brown can appoint six commissioners this year. They work full-time, usually in pairs, and travel to prisons around the state where they conduct the hearings. They consider anywhere from 4 to 7,000 lifer parole cases each year and find only about three to five percent, a few hundred lifers, suitable for release. If an inmate is found suitable, the governor then has 30 days to review the board’s decision, ultimately deciding whether a lifer in prison gets released or not.

So, since 1988, when California governors were given that authority by the voters in a constitutional amendment, we’ve had five governors: George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and now Jerry Brown. And up until Brown, the governors reversed 70-98 percent of all paroles.

BABA: They rejected most of the parole board decisions.

MULLANE: That’s right. The vast majority. And that caused the lifer population in our prisons to blow up from about 6,000 to more than 24,000.

But since Jerry Brown took office just five months ago, there’s been a huge shift. Instead of reversing 70-98%, he’s been allowing 80% of the lifers found suitable for parole to go home.

BABA: So why the shift?

MULLANE:  Well that’s a good question. And while he hasn’t said, there are some pretty good reasons.

Overall about 70% of inmates released from prison for crimes other than murder recidivate. That means they either violate the terms of their parole or they commit a new crime and are returned to prison to serve a new sentence.

But according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s most recent reports, when people convicted of murder are released from prison, fewer than 3% go back to prison, and even then it’s not for violent crimes.

So that could be one of Governor Brown’s considerations. The other is the cost of incarcerating people who are growing old in prison. According to a former Director of the CDCR, it costs an average of $50,000 a year to keep a prisoner locked up. But that number jumps to between $100 and $200,000 a year to keep a lifer locked up. They’re older, they have health issues and over the past decade, they’ve begun appealing the governor’s reversals in court, costing millions of dollars in lawyers and court fees.

Whatever Governor Brown’s reasoning, over the past four months, of the 150 lifers found suitable for parole, he has “taken no action” on 120. That means, he allowed 120 prisoners serving life with the possibility of parole to do just that. To go home.

BABA: So let’s bring this back to the story of Ernest Morgan. He was convicted of murder as a teenager, and after 24 years he was found suitable for parole.

MULLANE: For the 2nd time. I was with San Quentin State Prison’s Lt. Sam Robinson on May 6th, when he carried word from the Governor’s office to Morgan telling him whether or not he would really be freed.

Morgan was sitting with other inmates waiting in a room next to the prison chapel.

LT. SAM ROBINSON: Mr. Morgan? How are you doing? This is what you were waiting for, right? Let’s do it official. What’s your name?

MORGAN: Ernest Morgan.

ROBINSON: What’s your number?

MORGAN: 805063

ROBINSON: How long you been down?

MORGAN: In CDC about 20-21 years. Altogether 24 years.

ROBINSON: OK. What do you think I have here?

MORGAN: It’s too short. I think I’m…I think I’m done.

ROBINSON: Essentially that’s it. The Governor took no action. You’re done.  (Celebration clapping.)

LIFERS AROUND: Free man!

BABA: That’s Ernest Morgan, who was serving a 15-years to life prison sentence, finding out that he would go free. It was recorded on May 6th inside San Quentin State Prison by KALW’s Nancy Mullane. I’m Hana Baba, and you’re listening to Crosscurrents from KALW News. So he was understandably pretty excited there, Nancy. What did he have to say to you, after he heard the news?

MULLANE: He actually told me he was expecting another reversal – that Governor Brown would take his parole date away. Here’s what he had to say:

MORGAN: I don’t know for me, I don’t know about everybody but for me I want to be sure that everything that I’m doing is right. Schwarzenegger delayed me a year from going out and doing the work that I want to do with the communities but I also understand that I’d taken someone’s life and there’s a number of things I have to be accountable for and if the governor says, "not yet," Not yet. It hurt, don’t get me wrong. It hurt. But I understand.

BABA: That’s San Quentin inmate Ernest Morgan speaking with KALW’s Nancy Mullane. So that was right when he found out he’d go free.

MULLANE: Yes. And I went back to San Quentin the next day to find out how some of the other 800 lifers who are incarcerated at the prison feel about the new Governor’s policy change. One of the people I spoke with was Michael Harris. He’s an inmate and works at the San Quentin News.

MICHAEL HARRIS: I get a lot of information because I’m editor in chief of the San Quentin Newspaper so my job is to find out what everybody interested in and everybody’s interested in is this new governor and the fact that he’s following the law and he has no problem following the law in terms of letting the parole boards do their jobs. He’s making it clear that if somebody’s done the work and done their time they shouldn’t be held up from their freedom.

And a lot of guys are inspired by that and are working harder and are encouraging other people to do the work on themselves. It’s done changed the way people feel about the system in terms of freedom in here.

BABA: That’s the voice of Michael Harris, Chief Editor of the San Quentin News, who spoke with KALW’s Nancy Mullane inside the prison. So Nancy, let’s fast forward now to the week after Ernest Morgan learned his parole was approved by Governor Brown.

MULLANE: Okay. Remember, now, this is a man who’s been in prison for 24 years – everything in the world that he knew on the outside has changed. So it was a pretty dramatic scene when he was put in a prison van and driven to San Quentin’s East Gate where his mother, father, and two younger brothers were waiting.

MORGAN: Why are my two brothers bigger than me?

MULLANE: One person I was most curious to speak with at Ernest Morgan’s release was his mother, Hilda McCline. It was 24 years ago that Morgan shot his 14-year-old step sister to death. Now I wondered how his mother felt seeing her son being released from prison.

HILDA MCCLINE: It’s a great day. It’s one of my best days of my life. Other than mother’s day this year. It was a great day also.

MULLANE: I can’t imagine what it’s like to see a child get freedom.

MCCLINE: It’s amazing when you think you’re not going to have your child back again. To be able to go out to dinner and talk to him. It’s amazing.

MULLANE: Is that what you want? To go to dinner?

MCCLINE: Well. I would love to just spend time with him. You miss that. You miss that. The walls and visiting there is not the same as being free. So he’s been on a long road to freedom, is what they say. So I’m happy for him.

MULLANE: Some people would say that to forgive someone who commits murder is asking too much.

MCCLINE: I think we’ve all committed something so I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think some kids who are younger do things that they don’t mean to do and at some point in time they change and become different people. Everyone needs a second chance. Everyone needs a second chance.

BABA: That’s Hilda McCline, whose son Ernest Morgan was released from prison after serving 24 years of a life sentence. And we’re speaking with KALW’s Nancy Mullane. Nancy, one of the politicians who has taken a real interest in the fate of lifers and their parole is State Senator Mark Leno, from San Francisco.

MULLANE: Since 2002 he’s served on both the Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committees and has taken a strong interest in sentencing, prisons and parole.

I asked Senator Leno about Governor Brown’s willingness to follow his Parole Board’s recommendations for lifers. He told me he’s not a fan of Proposition 89, the 1988 law that was passed by voters giving the governor the authority to reverse parole decisions. Now, he says, this governor is simply following the letter of the law by doing his job and letting the parole board do theirs.

BABA: Let’s listen to your conversation with Senator Mark Leno.

SENATOR MARK LENO: It’s a bit of an ironic conundrum in that the parole board is hand chosen by the governor, by definition there to do his bidding. So then Prop 89 gives the governor the opportunity to interfere with what his own parole board has decided. That makes no sense. I’m not a big fan of Prop 89’s allowance for this. It highly politicizes a very delicate issue that should be handled by a less politically charged entity which is the Board of Parole Hearings. They do their due-diligence. They refuse many parole requests, 90-95%, so there are only very few that get through that screen.

So then for a governor like Gray Davis or Arnold Schwarzenegger to come and slash those few who get through that screen and reverse the decision is costing the state a great deal of money and denying some sense of justice for those who, yes, committed horrific crimes but were not condemned to death for a number of reasons and who, over in most cases decades, have been able to express their remorse, turn their lives around and have been ideal prisoners to even be considered by the parole board for parole.

MULLANE: With 24,000 lifers with the possibility of parole, and only maybe a 100 getting out a year, what is the possibility that a lifer in California doing a sentence with the possibility of parole, with that kind of population waiting to get out, what are the chances that they are going to see parole?

LENO: It's very unlikely. The opportunity, the window for parole is miniscule, and it's not likely that someone sentenced with a 15 to 25 years to life is going to get out.

BABA: That’s state senator Mark Leno speaking with KALW’s Nancy Mullane. And we look forward to following more of your parolee stories in the near future. Thanks, Nancy.

MULLANE: Thank you, Hana.

Hear Nancy Mullane's full interview with Senator Mark Leno here.