Brown departs from predecessors on parole for convicted killers

Published: Friday, Apr. 29, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A

Gov. Jerry Brown is letting convicted killers leave prison on parole at a far higher rate than previous governors, only rarely using his power to block decisions of the parole board.

Early in his term, Brown has let 106 of 130 convicted killers' parole releases stand – about 82 percent, according to Brown's office and records provided in response to a California Public Records Act request.

Brown's deference to the state Board of Parole Hearings is in contrast to his predecessors, who more aggressively used their power to overturn parole grants.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger let stand only about 27 percent of parole decisions. Gov. Gray Davis was even less lenient, letting only nine of 374 paroled killers out of prison while he was governor.

"If you take someone else's life, forget it," Davis said shortly after he took office in 1999. "I see no reason to parole people who have committed an act of murder."

A spokeswoman said Thursday that Brown is basing his parole decisions on public safety concerns and a 2008 state Supreme Court ruling that a governor may not deny parole based solely on the gravity of a prisoner's crime, but requires some evidence that he or she remains dangerous.

"Hundreds of cases were coming back where governors and the parole board were being sued," spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford said. "The two guiding principles are that law as well as public safety."

Now 73 years old and in his third term, Brown, a Democrat and former attorney general, also may be less encumbered by political ambition.

"When someone's running for election, a favorite question from the press is, 'Didn't you let X number of murderers out of jail?' " said law professor Heidi Rummel of the University of Southern California's Post-Conviction Justice Project. "It's a hard question to answer without a little bit of context."

The political danger of prisoner releases was perhaps no better demonstrated than in 1988, when Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor, found his presidential campaign ravaged by ads featuring released killer Willie Horton.

That was the year Californians granted governors the power to reverse parole grants for murderers.

The relatively large number of cases in which Brown has not intervened alarms victim rights advocates, who were critical even of Schwarzenegger's release rate.

Christine Ward, director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance, said Brown's numbers are "absolutely worse" than Schwarzenegger's, but she said she has not yet reviewed the cases he has considered.

"The large number does cause us concern, and we will be investigating," Ward said.

Schwarzenegger, a Republican, suggested early in his first term that he would defer often to the parole board, allowing release of more convicted killers than Davis, a Democrat. But his reversals resulted in numerous lawsuits, with some prisoners freed on court-issued writs of habeas corpus.

Brown's office referred a request for the identities of prisoners he has let out to the parole board, which did not immediately make them available Thursday.

Michael Satris, a Bolinas lawyer who helps life-term prisoners fight for release, said Brown's record represents a "complete reversal." He said Brown has let out a handful of his clients, including Reginald Scott, a Los Angeles County man who, according to court documents, had a previous parole decision reversed by Davis.

Scott, 80, was found guilty of second-degree murder in the beating death of a woman in 1980, according to a court document filed on his behalf.

"He's just getting older and older," Satris said. "Somebody like him is not going to go out and commit another offense at that age."

Of the inmates whose releases Brown blocked, at least two had been granted parole only after federal courts intervened. Brown reversed those cases after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this year that federal judges have no authority in such state matters.

In one high-profile case, Brown acknowledged in a letter denying Paul Guardado's parole that the Orange County man had "taken some positive steps while incarcerated."

But Brown said Guardado, who participated in the killing of a passerby in a park in 1979, exhibited an "exceptionally callous disregard for the suffering of others," concluding he "is still prone to committing further acts of violence."

Kent Washburn, Guardado's lawyer, said Brown may represent an improvement over previous governors for life-term inmates eligible for parole. But he said, "That's like saying that you're going to have a better human rights record than (Libyan leader Moammar) Gadhafi. We're not setting a high bar here."

Washburn said Guardado has been a model prisoner and deserves to be released.

The state parole board has historically granted parole to relatively few convicted killers, and law professor Rummel said "it makes sense that, at the end of that process, a governor would pay deference to the board."

Ashford said Brown takes into account that parole board members have "boots-on-the-ground experience." However, she said, "The governor reviews each one of these. He reads them. He looks at the full case."

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