Luis Frias has been something of a model prisoner for 15 years.
So much so, that the California state parole board has approved him
for release from prison twice.
But in each case, Mr. Frias's family says politics intervened and
kept the man, imprisoned for causing the death of a woman during a
robbery, behind bars.
In many states across the country, the age-old practice of
granting parole has been on the decline in the 1990s. Some states -
such as Ohio and Wisconsin - have abolished parole, while others
have just outlawed it for violent offenders. It's part and parcel of
a public and political mood to get tough on crime, say
Yet even in states like California, where parole remains a legal
part of the criminal-justice system, the trend is reaching a zenith.
Here, the granting of it to serious felons, no matter what their
performance in prison, has virtually disappeared.
While that fact shows no sign of creating any public fuss, the
apparent abandonment of a practice rooted deep in the American
justice system is stirring criticism by some criminologists, some
politicians, and even the courts themselves.
The argument for parole
In short, critics say parole is warranted for a small segment of
even the most serious offenders. It is written into the law and has
served over the years as an incentive for rehabilitating prisoners
and making them productive members of society.
Since Democratic Gov. Gray Davis took office in January 1999, the
state prison board has recommended parole 18 times. That's a small
slice of the 2,000 or so inmates reviewed.
But even the 18 were 18 too many for Mr. Davis. Not a single
parole recommendation has been approved by the governor.
"What this means is that the parole function has ceased to
operate," even though that function is part of the law and part of
sentencing says criminologist Franklin Zimring, at the University of
California at Berkeley. "It's really serious when the words in the
law lose their meaning."
Sharing alarm over the trend, Democratic state Sen. John
Vasconcellos accused the state parole board recently of holding
"Kafkaesque hearings in which conclusions have nothing to do with
Nationally, both political parties have spent the past decade
ratcheting up penalties and reducing judicial discretion in the
criminal courts. Being tough on crime has become bedrock for
Yet the dynamics in California suggest a mini-backlash to the
wholesale disappearance of parole, even for the most serious
The cases in question do not include prisoners on death row or
inmates who have been sentenced to life without the possibility of