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Prop. 89, Plan to Give Governor Parole Veto Power, Expected to Win

Times Staff Writer

Proposition 89 is expected to win hands down. After all, so the reasoning goes, who is going to vote against a measure designed to keep murderers in prison?

Supporters and opponents alike predict a landslide victory Nov. 8 for the proposed state constitutional amendment that would give the governor the authority to cancel paroles granted to murderers.

Even the lineup of names on the official ballot arguments looks like a mismatch.

Listed in favor of the proposition are the politically powerful, or at least the well-connected: Gov. George Deukmejian, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, Sen. Daniel E. Boatwright (D-Concord) and Assemblyman Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres).

There are a number of opponents of the measure, but the only one listed on the sample ballot is a Roman Catholic priest, Father Paul W. Comiskey, general counsel for an organization called the Prisoners Rights Union--not a name likely to reassure the mass of California voters in these days of fear.

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Boatwright--who authored the legislative constitutional amendment and considers it a “measure of safety"--is predicting an 80% voter approval rate.

Comiskey, who says the amendment would politicize parole decisions, rates chances of defeating the measure as about equal to those of a “snowball in hell.”

Proposition 89 would give the governor 30 days in which to review decisions of state adult and youth parole boards regarding the release of prisoners serving life sentences for murder with the possibility of parole. In deciding whether to affirm, modify or reverse a parole board decision, the governor would be limited under the measure to considering only those factors that had been considered by the parole authorities. The measure would also require the governor to report to the state Legislature the pertinent facts of each parole decision reviewed.

This legislative initiative is not new. It has been floundering in the Legislature since 1983, born of the public furor over the release from prison of William Archie Fain, who was serving a life term for the 1967 shotgun murder of a teen-age boy in Stanislaus County, as well as the rape of two teen-age girls and a 43-year-old housewife. After Deukmejian found he could not legally cancel Fain’s parole, Boatwright introduced the legislative amendment to give the governor such authority in future cases.

But the measure languished in the Assembly Public Safety Committee until this year, said Boatwright, when pressure from the dissident “Gang of Five” Democrats (who oppose the leadership of Democratic Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco) helped to give it a “fair hearing.”

The measure was overwhelmingly passed by both the Senate and the Assembly, and was placed on the Nov. 8 ballot. The proposition’s chances certainly were not hurt earlier this year when Fain, inspiration for the proposed amendment, was charged with a brutal attempted rape in Alameda County. He has pleaded not guilty.

Comiskey argues that the parole of Fain is a false issue because the convict’s release date had been set by the parole board years before Deukmejian became involved in the controversy and the proposed amendment would have given the governor only 30 days to reverse the decision from the day the release date was set.

If passed, Proposition 89 would seem not only to allow a conservative governor to reverse a decision granting a parole to a murderer, but would also allow a more liberal governor to grant such a release over the objections of a parole board.

But Boatwright argues that the governor already possesses the authority to commute a prisoner’s sentence and says that his amendment would provide the counterbalancing authority to prevent a release.

It would “provide an extra measure of safety to law-abiding citizens,” says a ballot argument by Deukmejian and Boatwright.

Fears Politicization

“Proposition 89 will politicize decisions about whether to grant or deny parole,” insists Comiskey in his ballot argument.

“I think it’s going to invite lawlessness in this whole area,” he told The Times. “It will result in a very chilling effect on anybody getting out on parole.”

“Boatwright has always been a convict-basher,” Comiskey said. “He’s a bully. He picks on people inside prisons.”

Boatwright eagerly embraced the accusation.

“I don’t like prisoners,” he proclaimed. “I was a deputy district attorney, and I saw what these people did to innocent families. And you’re right, I don’t like them.”

The Prisoners Rights Union is joined in its opposition to the measure by such diverse groups as the American Civil Liberties Union and the California Probation, Parole and Correctional Assn.

“The governor appoints all parole board members,” said Susan Cohen, executive director of the Probation, Parole and Correctional Assn. “And now this initiative seems to be a way to second-guess them. . . .

“This (amendment) does not reflect a professional point of view,” she continued. “Now you’re going to have a . . . politician . . . making decisions on who should or shouldn’t get out of prison.”

Boatwright counters that he is not concerned about the actions of the current parole authorities, most of whom have law enforcement backgrounds and all of whom were appointed by Deukmejian. It is what future parole boards might do that worries Boatwright.

“Basically it’s not necessary for now,” he said. “We’re looking out for a future situation where we might have a parole board that leans more to the defendant than to the public.”

But one of Boatwright’s ballot arguments in favor of Proposition 89 implicitly criticizes Deukmejian’s adult parole board for being too lenient.

“First-degree murderers who were paroled last year,” complains the ballot argument, “averaged less than 14 years in state prison.”

Despite the implicit criticism, the nine-member adult parole board--officially called the Board of Prison Terms--has endorsed the measure allowing the governor to reverse its decisions.

“I think the board feels that the governor has a right to review the board’s work,” said Robert Patterson, executive director of the Board of Prison Terms. “And I think the board feels the governor will approve of the actions taken by the board. . . . I don’t think he’ll ever have to use this law.”

Patterson pointed to figures from the second quarter of this year showing that board members had granted parole dates to only 2.5% of the 221 convicts who went before them. He said that murderers who were released last year with less than 14 years served had been imprisoned under a seven-years-to-life sentencing structure that was replaced by a ballot measure in 1982.

That measure requires first-degree murderers to serve 25 years to life and second-degree killers to serve 15 years to life. The minimum terms in both sentences can be reduced by work time and good behavior.

There are currently about 6,400 adult prisoners serving first- and second-degree terms in California, Patterson said. He did not know how many were sentenced under the new more stringent terms.

Parolee Murders

The ballot argument in favor of Proposition 89 also maintains that since 1978 in Sacramento County, eight paroled murderers killed new victims.

But Cohen of the parole and probation officers association contends that the constitutional amendment would have had no effect on those paroles unless they involved highly publicized cases.

“They only would have been kept in if there was some reason to draw them to the attention of the public to begin with,” she said. “If nothing in that wheel was squeaking, nothing would have prevented the release.”

WHAT PROPOSITION 89 WOULD DO Proposition 89 PAROLE REVIEW

Main Sponsor: Sen. Daniel E. Boatwright (D-Concord).

Other Supporters: Gov. George Deukmejian, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, Assemblyman Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres).

Opponents: Father Paul W. Comiskey, SJ, general counsel for the Prisoners Rights Union; the American Civil Liberties Union, and the California Probation, Parole and Correctional Assn.

Key provisions of Proposition 89:

The proposition would amend the state Constitution to allow the governor 30 days in which to review decisions of state adult and youth parole boards regarding the release of prisoners serving life sentences for murder with the possibility of parole. In deciding whether to affirm, modify or reverse a parole board decision, the governor would be limited under the measure to considering only those factors that had been considered by the parole authorities. The measure also would require the governor to report the pertinent facts of each parole decision reviewed to the state Legislature.


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