In More States, Parole Is a Thing of the Past ; Several Cases in California - and the Spread of Laws Elsewhere - Underscore the Fall of Parole Nationwide

Article excerpt

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 criminologists.

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 the facts."

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 political success.

Yet the dynamics in California suggest a mini-backlash to the wholesale disappearance of parole, even for the most serious offenders.

The cases in question do not include prisoners on death row or inmates who have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. …


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