When the Colorado movie theater shooter was given a life sentence in late August, I asked myself whether “life” would actually mean life – or whether James Holmes could end up back in his hometown of San Diego in a few decades due to a policy change in Colorado similar to California’s new elder lifer parole policy.
The state’s elder parole program allows some lifers age 60 or older who have served at least 25 years of their sentences to seek parole. Under this policy, James Schoenfeld, the Chowchilla school bus kidnapper, has been released. So has Christopher Hubbart, known as the “Pillowcase Rapist” for the sexual assaults of 40 women.
This elder release policy has impacted my life directly. My father, Michael Bear Carson, and his second wife, Suzan Carson, were granted parole hearings this year. They were known as the “San Francisco Witch Killers” because they allegedly told one victim that they were traveling around killing witches.
Thankfully, Michael Carson’s hearing was postponed to 2020, but Suzan Carson may be granted early release at her hearing in Chino on Dec. 2.
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At the time of their conviction in 1984, I was a fourth-grader who was told that I would no longer need to live in hiding. The families of the three known victims were told that they would serve sentences of 75 years to life.
Now, 31 years later, the victims’ families and I have lost this security.
These elder parole rules are just one of several policies that have led to the mass release of California inmates. They include Assembly Bill 109, also known as realignment, which transferred inmates from state prisons to county custody. Proposition 47 reclassified some felonies as misdemeanors, including the possession of date-rape drugs or a stolen gun.
Another age-related prison reform bill, Senate Bill 260, allows the release of adult offenders who were incarcerated as minors. It was intended to allow teen offenders a second chance at life. Unfortunately, SB 260 has allowed the early release of rapists and murders including Jeffrey Allen Maria, who was just shy of 18 when he murdered Phil and Kathy Ranzo with an axe.
Altogether, California prison “reforms” have resulted in the release of 1,963 lifers between 2011 and 2015, compared to only two between 1999 and 2003.
When 1 in 100 adults sat in prison and 1 in 40 children had an incarcerated parent in 2010 in the United States, it was clear that prison reform was needed. But releasing murderers is not the answer for overcrowding.
The incarceration pendulum needs to swing to the center with common-sense policies that address both civil rights and public safety before there is a tsunami of violent crime in our communities.
Jenn Carson, who lives in Moreno Valley, is a school-based counselor and an advocate for children of prisoners.