Conventional thinking tells us that when a lifer goes to the Board, he/she is hoping to be “found” suitable for parole. Sorry to say, but that approach is as unfruitful as hoping to win the lottery.
Typically, lifers committed a crime with criminal intent. Upon coming to prison as a ‘lifer,’ they sealed their fate by becoming ‘convicts’ inside the highly structured prison society. After reading Penal Code § 3041(a), which states they should “normally” be found suitable, they proceed to each hearing expecting an automatic pronouncement of having been “found” suitable for parole.
When they are long past their Minimum Eligible Parole Date (MEPD), they begin to cry “unfair” and that the Board isn’t following the law. It is true that for many years, lifer parole grants were admittedly squelched arbitrarily – as Albert Leddy, former Chairman of the Parole Board, testified at my habeas evidentiary hearing in 2000.
But now long past Governor Gray Davis’ personal agenda to deny all lifers parole, we have a Board of Parole Hearings today that is releasing over 1,000 lifers per year. What has changed? Has the Board softened its stance and just quietly started following the law to ‘normally’ grant parole?
The answer is “no.” And this is perhaps most evident in the recidivism rate of paroled lifers: less than ½ of 1% - versus a ‘normal’ recidivism rate by other prisoners of 60-70%. This striking difference demonstrates that paroled lifers, unlike their short-termer comrades, are no longer ‘convicts’ with a criminal bent.
How did this happen? In the first two decades of the 21st century, lifers began to engage themselves in newly offered “programming” – from self-help groups to college programs. They began to take responsibility for their own lives, and eschewed convict mentality. They found succor in self-improvement, education, and interface with the public. In short, they began to make the internal changes in who they were, to thereby become indistinguishable from upstanding members of society – which they were now planning on being upon their parole.
And it is precisely this internal change, from ‘convict’ mentality to being a good citizen of the realm, that today the Board looks for – and more and more often finds – to be able to recognize that that lifer has become suitable for release onto parole.
I still retain a vivid image of a lifer exchanging cash money (greenbacks) with a guard on the tier, who in turn handed him a baggie of white powder. As a heroin dealer, that lifer perpetuated his convict mentality, and was repeatedly denied parole. Over 30 years past his MEPD, he was finally released onto parole. Yes, it took him that long to make the internal changes. (Hint: dope dealers are not ‘normally’ found suitable for parole!)
Every lifer has a different story to tell, but the common thread is that these folks have already – inside the walls – prepared to move right into society with their self-changed prosocial mores. Getting the nod from the Board does not depend on the gravity of the crime (they are all bad) – because it is the person who is being paroled, not the criminal.
When the Board observes this self-change at the parole hearing, they will welcome that former convict into the free world as if they were to become the Board members’ nextdoor neighbor – which they might well be!