New data shows California lifers more likely to die in prison than to get parole
Right now, there are 17,000 inmates in California prisons serving life with the possibility of parole. For years, no one has really known how many of these prisoners are dying before they are paroled. And, it's taken a Public Records Act request by a reporter to find out.
KALW's Nancy Mullane has been following the parole process for lifers in California prisons for the past four years. She spoke with KALWs Holly Kernan to share the data just released by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
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HOLLY KERNAN: So Nancy tell us what you've found out, what's this new data?
NANCY MULLANE: Well, Holly, what we found out through the release of these Public Records Act requests is that the individuals in California who have been sentenced to life with the possibility of parole for murder – not death, not life without the possibility of parole, but the 17,000 in California who have been sentenced to prison with the possibility of parole, meaning if they meet the conditions of parole, they will be released – what we found is that, number one, they serve...since 1988, when the governor of California was given the responsibility to review parole board decisions...
KERNAN:...Which significantly politicized those decisions, and then the governor was much less likely to grant parole...
MULLANE: That's right. Because what happens every year is that the parole board holds 4 to 5,000 parole board hearings for the 17,000 murder 1 or murder 2 prisoners. And of those 17,000 prisoners and of the 4 to 5,000 parole board hearings, they only find about 5% suitable. And over the last 23 years since the governor was given this authority, the four different governors have reversed, just unilaterally reversed, 75% to 99% of all the parole board suitability findings sent to the governor.
So what that meant is that we've not only increased the population of this one cohort of prisoners in California from about 5,000 to about 17,000, but what it also means is those in prison are going to serve longer sentences. And now what we find out through this just-released data that we've gotten, and for the first time because the CDCR hadn't even compiled this data before, what we found out is from 2000 to 2010, the number of individuals who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole for first or second degree murder, only 674 were released from prison. But what we've just found out is during those same years, 775 died in prison hoping for parole.
KERNAN: So, you're more likely to die in prison than get released on parole?
MULLANE: That's correct. According to the CDCR's newly released statistic.
KERNAN: And the other thing that your new data found is that prisoners serving life with the possibility of parole are also now serving longer sentences?
MULLANE: That's right. So let's look at 2009, for instance. Well, actually let's start back before the governor got the authority to review parole board decisions. Back in 1988, a prisoner serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole for second degree murder served an average of five years. A prisoner serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole with first degree murder served about 14 years. But in 2009 – this is now almost 20 years after the governor had this authority – someone serving first degree murder is now serving 27 years, or 14 years more than in 1988. And for second degree murder? Twenty-four years, or 20 years more. So we're finding that people are not only serving much longer sentences, but they also have a greater chance of dying while they're waiting for parole.
KERNAN: ...And California is under a court order to reduce it's prison population. So how does your new data fit into the equation?
MULLANE: Well, one of the things that Justice Kennedy – in his Supreme Court ruling that ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population – one of the things he recommended was that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation look at who is in its prison, when they're released, who has the lowest recidivism rate and find out who it's safest to release. And so what we've discovered is that one of the new data released by the CDCR is that of the individuals who have been released for the last 20 years from 1990 to 2011, zero of the individuals released who had committed murder and had done time for murder committed murder. Zero. No one who had ever got out in the last 20 years – and that's almost 1,000 – ever committed murder...
KERNAN...Of those who were convicted of murder with the possibility of parole?
MULLANE: That's right. So none of them had ever committed murder. But, if you look at this other population in the state of California – and that's 80% of the individuals who are incarcerated in our prisons today – they're serving something called "determinant sentence," meaning they don't ever go before the parole board. They do a time that's established by the court that sentenced them. And when that time is up, they walk out of prison. Whether they've done anything to rehabilitate themselves or not. No parole hearing, no expectations, just a bus ride back to the corner of 16th and Mission if that's where they want to go.
So what we've found now is that of those – for instance in 2009, 130,000 were released on parole – of the 130,000 that were released on parole, in one year 85,000 were returned to prison. Of the 85,000 that returned to prison, 13% of those were sent back to prison for committing a new felony, and of those, 149 were for murder. So what this tells us is that the Supreme Court is right. We need to look also at who we're releasing in the state of California from our prisons, and we need to be releasing the individuals who are least likely to commit murder or any other felony.
KERNAN: Thanks, Nancy.