Tuesday, July 3, 2007
The Governor and the Prisoner: Do you Fear This Man?
Governor Schwarzenegger is our first governor in decades to acknowledge that California's behemoth prison system is out of control, but even he refuses to acknowledge the central role that governors play (including this one) in keeping those prisons full and growing. Since the early 1980s, California's governors have positioned themselves as the keepers of the crypt, locking up as many criminals as possible, for as long as possible, all in order to keep California's law abiding citizens as safe as possible.
The distinctive role of governors in this process is well documented by the way lifer's receive parole in California. If you are convicted of Second Degree Murder in California (essentially a deliberate or reckless killing that is not premeditated or carried out in the course of a felony crime) you are sentenced to life in prison, subject to parole after a minimum number of years (like 15). For much of the 20th century that parole decision was made by an administrative agency. In 1988, by virtue of ballot initiative, the decisions of the parole board was made subject to review and final decision by the governor. Since that time the number of lifers paroled has dropped to nearly zero. The parole board is generally composed of former law enforcement officials little disposed to sympathize with prisoners, but even their cautious approach to parole has been too lenient for most governors who have declined to parole all but a few of the prisoners recommended to them by their own parole boards.
To his credit, Governor Schwarzenegger has been more open to parole than any of his recent predecessors (especially Democrat Gray Davis). But even this Governor has routinely opted to deny parole recommendations; succumbing to the same reflex response of our recent leaders to act against even the most marginal conceivable risk if its marked as a risk of violent crime. Paradoxically this reflex also constrains the Governor's ability to advance solutions to serious risks like the loss of middle class jobs and the growing ranks of uninsured people in California.
Soon Governor Schwarzenegger will once again have an opportunity to consider parole for California's oldest prisoner, 95 year old John Rodriguez who was sentenced to 15 years to life for murdering his wife in 1975 (read the LA Times profile).
Most people who want to reduce prison populations begin with drug offenders and other non-violent criminals. But it is really the fear of violent crime, especially murder, that drives even the harsh treatment of drug crimes. If even a 95-year-old-murderer, who has served more than 25 years in prison (plenty of time to account for the seriousness of his act), poses too much of a risk, there is little hope of clearing our prisons of the bulk of non-violent offenders whose property or drug crimes link them in popular consciousness to the risk of more serious crime. (This is the fallacy behind the argument I mostly sympathize with that we should reserve prison for "those we fear." It is usually offered to encourage less prison use, but in the age of Governing through Crime, fear reaches too far to be an effective limiting principle.)
In Rodriguez's latest trip before the parole board even the prosecutor conceded that "he could not see Rodriguez as a threat to society and said he would defer to the board's decision." But the California Governor's mansion has become a prison of public fear. Each parole decision an act of political will that must take into account every citizen as a potential victim in the state (perhaps we should have a popular ballot initiative on every parole decision). So write or email Governor Schwarzenegger and let him know whether you fear this man?