They are trained at putting tough questions to convicted murderers, but the state’s powerful parole board commissioners have found themselves on the other side of the table lately, under interrogation in a political conflict that has cost some of them their jobs.
On one side of the dispute is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who routinely appoints former law enforcement officials to the Board of Parole Hearings, which decides whether to release the most serious criminals from prison. On the other is state Senate leader Don Perata, a Democrat from Oakland who believes commissioners deny parole to deserving inmates far too often.
Since January, Democratic senators led by Perata have rejected four of the eight commissioners they have grilled at confirmation hearings, ousting a third of the 12-member board and forcing Schwarzenegger to replace them. Members can serve a year after their appointment but must then receive the Senate’s blessing to complete their three-year terms.
The upheaval has further disrupted an already problem-plagued board that has postponed thousands of parole hearings in recent years, potentially exposing the state to hefty fines from a Superior Court judge.
Perata has called the board “a sham” for denying parole to 95% of so-called life inmates, many of whom have been locked up for decades. He has urged the governor to appoint commissioners from outside the law enforcement world to augment the former police officers, sheriffs and probation chief who make up all but one of the current board members.
“It just defies logic to suggest that they can interview or evaluate over 5,000 people [a year] and make only a handful of remands back to the community,” Perata said in an interview. “Where are the social scientists, the psychologists? Where are the people who bring a different dimension to life, a different view on rehabilitation?”
But Schwarzenegger has persisted, last week naming two more commissioners with law enforcement backgrounds. State law says commissioners should have “a broad background in criminal justice.”
“We believe that we’ve been appointing individuals who will follow the law and who have the right background,” said Aaron McLear, the governor’s spokesman. “We expect these nominees to weigh each case on its merits, keeping public safety at the forefront of their decision-making process.”
The board’s new executive director, Martin Hoshino, is trying to reduce a backlog of 1,400 parole hearings postponed, in part, because of outdated psychological reports or unavailable commissioners. Losing members hasn’t helped.
“We have hearings ready to go and there’s nobody to hear it,” Hoshino said.
The inability to conduct hearings dates to before Schwarzenegger took office. A Marin County Superior Court judge overseeing an inmate lawsuit is threatening to impose fines for hearings postponed since February; that could cost the state more than $1 million this year. Keith Wattley, an Oakland attorney in the suit, said the state is unconcerned about hearings because it doesn’t intend to let inmates out anyway.
“Prisoners have no political power,” he said.
The board has several functions, including 100,000 proceedings a year conducted by staff and related to parole violations and other matters. But the appointed commissioners, who earn $112,000 a year in the full-time post, oversee the board’s highest-profile duty: hearings for inmates sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
The commissioners are required to consider a multitude of factors in deciding whether an inmate no longer poses a significant risk and should be released. They are scheduled to conduct 16 hearings a week, often traveling to far-flung state prisons. When they do grant parole, the governor usually reverses the decision.
Advocates for prisoners say the commissioners are predisposed to deny parole. Their rulings are “oftentimes based on what they had for breakfast that morning more than how deserving the inmate is,” said Matt Gray, a lobbyist on criminal justice issues whose father is a prisoner. “We could have a monkey in a basement stamping these denials.”
Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. David Dahle said law enforcement officials make good commissioners because they understand the criminal mind and see through inmates’ tricks.
“Why isn’t the number [of denials] dramatically lower?” Dahle said. “It’s obviously because these people are the ones who have committed the most anti-social acts in society.”
Darcel Woods, a former commissioner from Los Angeles rejected by the Senate in March, presided over 223 hearings in 2007, with eight resulting in grants of parole -- an approval rate of 3.6%. Woods acknowledged “a philosophical divide” between Schwarzenegger and Perata but she said she considered only the people of California.
“I have a sincere interest in their safety and their well-being,” said Woods, who has worked as a parole agent, a deputy sheriff and a community college professor teaching criminal justice issues.
At their confirmation hearings, parole commissioners have been harshly questioned by senators and criticized by inmates’ attorneys, who have called them ignorant of the law and verbally abusive.
“Professionally, it was one of the worst experiences of my life,” said Stan Kubochi, who was tossed off the commission at a hearing in January after serving a year.
Some senators cited Kubochi’s refusal to disqualify a deputy commissioner from a parole hearing in which her own daughter testified. Kubochi said Perata disregarded his work as a public defender, focusing on his time in the Sacramento district attorney’s office.
Janice Eng, a former corporate executive from San Francisco with no law enforcement background, was removed last month, nearly two years after Schwarzenegger appointed her. Under questioning, she told Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Los Angeles) that she couldn’t explain battered woman’s syndrome, a mitigating factor for a crime, under the state’s parole regulations.
Eng said her ouster was “political.”
“All the commissioners are pawns on a chessboard,” she said, referring to the Schwarzenegger-Perata feud.
Eng said she enjoyed working with inmates and would tell friends at dinner parties about the world of parole she had stumbled into. But she won’t miss searching for safe accommodations in desolate areas near prisons on a reimbursement rate of $84 a day.
“I didn’t want to stay in hotels where they were carrying out dead bodies,” she said, “or had shootouts in the parking lots.”