California Politics: Why some prisoners are still locked up after Newsom said they could get out early

An inmate is escorted to his cell at San Quentin State Prison.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Rahsaan Thomas walked out of San Quentin State Prison on Wednesday, more than a year after Gov. Gavin Newsom said he should have his sentence shortened because he had “dedicated himself to his rehabilitation” by completing college classes and self-help programming while serving more than 20 years for second-degree murder.

Weeks before he was freed, Thomas — co-host of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Ear Hustle” podcast — spoke with Times reporter Mackenzie Mays for an article exploring why so many people who have received commutations from Newsom remain locked up long after he granted them mercy.

“I can’t curse a blessing,” Thomas said in a phone interview from prison on Jan. 11. “My one wish is that this process, if you get a commutation, it should be streamlined. Really, it should be streamlined for everybody. ... If you decided it’s safe to let me go, why drag it out?”


While the governor’s clemency power allows him to unilaterally free people he deems worthy, Mays’ analysis found that the governor usually doesn’t use it that way. Instead, Newsom sends prisoners to the parole board, allowing its commissioners to decide their fate.

The result: Of the 123 commutations, or reductions of sentences, that Newsom has granted since he became governor in 2019, a third of those people remain behind bars — in some cases years after the governor’s recommendations.

In Thomas’ case, Newsom commuted his sentence in January 2022, and he was granted parole by the board in August. Then came a mandatory review period of up to 150 days. He was released the day The Times published the article about dozens of people, including Thomas, remaining in prison despite receiving mercy from the governor.

In 19 other cases, Newsom granted commutations to prisoners he believed had demonstrated rehabilitation — but the parole board denied their release.

Hi, I’m Laurel Rosenhall, The Times’ Sacramento bureau chief, here with your guide to the week’s news in California politics.

The Willie Horton effect?

The infamous case of Willie Horton, who raped a woman after being allowed to leave a Massachusetts prison in 1986, has put politicians on alert for decades. Republican George H.W. Bush highlighted the case in an infamous attack ad that helped him defeat Michael Dukakis, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, in the 1988 presidential race. Ever since then, the “Willie Horton effect” has become synonymous with the political risks involved in granting prisoners early release.

Newsom, who issued a moratorium on the death penalty during his first year in office and has ordered the closure of some state prisons, has touted his clemency power as “an important part of the criminal justice system” in news releases announcing his commutations. But some of the criminal justice experts Mays interviewed said his deference to the parole board can essentially render commutation meaningless in some cases.

“It’s hard to see it as anything other than political cover,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and co-founder of the Clemency Resource Center at New York University.


There’s a lot more to The Times’ investigation, including some powerful stories from prisoners who were denied parole even after Newsom said they could have their sentences shortened. Read the full article here.

Coming to your ballot

Twice in the last two weeks, major corporations have scored wins in their fights against progressive policies approved by Democrats at the California Capitol.

First, the secretary of state announced that fast food companies had collected enough signatures to force a referendum on a state law meant to boost wages for restaurant workers. Last week, oil companies’ effort to overturn an environmental safety law that would ban new drilling projects near homes and schools similarly qualified for the ballot.

Both laws are now on hold until voters decide in November 2024 whether to uphold them. In this insightful article, Times reporter Taryn Luna explains how business interests are using ballot referendums to push back against a Legislature that’s become a “super super majority by one party.”

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Keeping up with the Capitol

Allan Zaremberg, dean of state business community, remembered as advocate for California


The longtime leader of the California Chamber of Commerce and a former aide to two governors died Saturday at age 74. He was known for building diverse coalitions of like-minded business interests and often crossed party lines to reach solutions through compromise.

California bill would ban game-style events like lotteries and raffles at gun stores

Adding to the growing list of gun control measures California Democrats have unveiled in recent weeks, a new bill by Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-Burbank) would ban firearms dealers from holding game-style promotional events such as giveaways, lotteries and raffles, and add new misdemeanor convictions that prohibit people from owning guns for 10 years.

California bill would make it cheaper for some students in Mexico to attend college in the U.S.

Low-income students who live in Mexico within 45 miles of the California border could pay in-state tuition to attend community college in San Diego and Imperial counties under legislation introduced by Assemblymember David Alvarez (D-San Diego).

Skelton: Newsom promised to punish Big Oil for profiteering, but so far it’s just talk

The inaction is not because the Legislature is beholden to the oil industry for political favors, although some lawmakers are, undoubtedly. It’s because neither the governor nor any legislator has figured out exactly how to punish the industry, writes columnist George Skelton.

Newsom administration offers legislation to protect western Joshua tree


It’s the first legislation focused on protecting a climate-threatened tree species while also permitting development across Southern California’s sunniest desert parcels. The legislation was prompted by the California Fish and Game Commission’s inability to act on a petition seeking to list the trees as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act.

Brazen food stamp scammers steal millions from L.A.’s poorest. ‘They’re hemorrhaging money’

At the start of each month, some of L.A.’s poorest residents have been waking up to discover a month of food or rent money they were relying on has been stolen by thieves draining the electronic accounts where the government deposits public benefit payments. Advocates want the state to make the system more secure, but the government has no timeline for upgrading the technology, with a spokesman saying it would require “complex technological and statutory changes.”

Warehouse boom transformed Inland Empire. Are jobs worth the environmental degradation?

Environmental groups are pushing Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency, hoping to keep new warehouses away from homes and schools, where heavy truck traffic can expose children to high levels of toxic diesel emissions that have been linked to respiratory illness.

Editorial: Are California school kids drinking water tainted with lead? We don’t know, and that’s the problem


Legislation by Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) would require the water fountains and faucets at public and private schools built before 2010 to be tested every five years and cleaned up if tainted with lead. The Times editorial board calls it “a sensible solution to a problem that has been vexing environmental health advocates for years.”

Editorial: Big Oil reaps record profits while the planet burns. California should curb its greed

Lawmakers should stop stalling and move quickly to adopt a law to stop price gouging at the pump, argues The Times editorial board: “California has an opportunity to lead the nation and prevent oil industry opportunism from hurting consumers.”

Skelton: Feinstein deserves a graceful exit, and she’d be wise to take it

Virtually everyone expects Sen. Dianne Feinstein not to run for reelection next year. If Feinstein did run, she almost certainly would suffer an embarrassing defeat — a sad ending to a fabulous career as arguably the best California senator ever.

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