Randy Whittenburg was a “commendable” candidate for release from prison.
After 31 years behind bars for his role in a Los Angeles strong-arm robbery that ended in murder, Whittenburg had earned four vocational certificates; completed Bible study, anger management and 12-step programs; and accumulated a file of prison officials’ praise. He was married and had detailed plans for success.
Eighteen months after he was paroled in 2011, the 47-year-old was jobless, separated from his wife and riding around L.A. on a bicycle, packing heat. When his girlfriend locked him out, he fired his gun into her apartment, hitting her.
“God gave you a second chance,” she whispered to him from her hospital bed the next morning. A recorded phone line in the L.A. County Jail captured her incredulity. “Why would you do something like this?”
That troubling question is increasingly being repeated at parole hearings across California as the number of inmates with life sentences who are granted release skyrockets under Gov. Jerry Brown. Currently nearly 2,000 murderers, hit men and robbers who spent decades locked up and now range from middle-aged to elderly are trying to find their way. Most succeed, but each month a few more fail, returning to the drugs and crime that put them in prison and raising public safety concerns.
California is one of four states in which the governor has final authority over parole decisions. A Times analysis of parole records found that Brown has allowed parole for 1,963 inmates with life sentences — more inmates than four governors released in the 27 years before he was elected.
With the dramatic rise in parole, The Times also found a disturbing increase in revocations. Since 2011, at least 50 inmates with life sentences, including 33 paroled under Brown, returned to prison or jail, accused of drug use, domestic violence, theft, even attempted murder. A Stanford University study found that among 860 inmates with life sentences who were paroled from 1995 to 2010, five returned to prison with new felony charges.
The governor defended his parole decisions and said he is abiding by the law and his own belief in redemption. But both Brown and his appointed parole board director declined to comment on the number of inmates who have returned to prison.
The state agency charged with supervising these high-profile parolees, often called “lifers,” started organizing special services in 2013, when about 1,400 already had been paroled. Re-entry programs were beefed up in select prisons, special agents now supervise lifers in five communities and, at monthly meetings in four cities, lifers counsel one another on life outside prison.
But as more inmates with life sentences are released, even the official in charge of special parole programs expresses caution.
“We’ve never had this many out,” state parole administrator Maritza Rodriguez said.
When Brown took office in 2011, more than 33,000 parole-eligible inmates with life sentences were in California’s overcrowded prisons, kept there by governors loath to release murderers. Some had been held twice as long as their sentences required.
Citing a 2008 California Supreme Court ruling that prevented parole commissioners from considering the brutality of the inmate’s crime, Brown’s office is now allowing the release of two or three lifers each day. In response to other legal challenges, the state Board of Parole Hearings also is scouring hearing transcripts to find more candidates for early review.
Jennifer Shaffer, the parole board’s executive director, said she expects parole releases to climb as more lifers participate in expanded rehabilitation programs.
“There’s a meaningful opportunity for parole where perhaps there was none before,” she said.
While each case is legally scrutinized, Brown has said he also believes people can change.
“I have been brought up in the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church,” he said, “and redemption is at the very core of that religion.”
But parole officers said they were unprepared for the surge of the uniquely challenging parolees. The state has begun assigning them to special parole officers who each oversee, on average, 53 lifers, while encouraging other parole agents to ease off minor violations and focus on helping lifers adjust.
The workloads are too large to allow the depth of guidance lifers need, said Ondre Henry, president of the state parole officers’ union. Officers also complain about shortages of residency programs and mentors. And inmates and their advocates say prison rehabilitation programs are inadequate.
Crime victim advocates worry the prison system is failing to equip lifers with coping skills.
“We’re talking about people with track records of the most serious and violent crime … and we’re saying, ‘Good luck out there, do well,’” said Christine Ward, executive director of Crime Victims Action Alliance.
Transcripts from scores of parole hearings show that most lifers struggled with feelings of isolation, insecurity, inadequacy and unhappiness for which they were unprepared.
Prison records and court documents indicate that most of those sent back to prison were caught using drugs, relapsing after decades of sobriety behind bars.
Like most inmates who plead for release, Linda Vivian told parole commissioners in 2012 that she was “confident … ready for the free world.” She had been sober for 27 years after being sent to prison for shooting a fellow junkie.
After a year on parole bouncing between halfway houses across California, the 63-year-old felt utterly alone and overwhelmed.
Two days after Christmas in 2013, Vivian went to a convenience store to buy heroin. She jabbed a needle into her ankle and called paramedics to come get her.
When she returned to the women’s prison in Chowchilla, parole Commissioner Elizabeth Richardson asked the tiny, frosty-haired inmate whether anyone had warned her how difficult life would be on the outside.
“Not to the degree that I got the rudest awakening of my life,” Vivian said. “It was rough outside of the prison.”
Most parolees with life sentences who return to prison for drug use are eventually released again. Some more than once.
Charles Brooks, who stabbed a San Francisco fisherman to death during a drug-induced psychosis in 1989, was out nearly a year before he tested positive for cocaine in 2010. He returned to prison for a year, was re-paroled in 2011 and got picked up again five months later for smoking crack. After three more years in San Quentin, he was released in February for his third try.
“I’m more sincere as far as practicing what I’m learning,” Brooks told the board.
Drug use may seem like a relatively minor offense, but commissioners in parole revocation hearings reviewed by The Times repeatedly expressed worry that it signals a dangerous return to the “criminal thinking” and impulsive behavior that led to their deadly crimes.
Among the other types of criminal behavior that have landed parolees back behind bars: one man was accused of choking his girlfriend, another crashed while driving drunk, a third was accused of trying to seduce a 14-year-old girl.
Paul Dennan stabbed a man 17 times in a fury 25 years ago and was paroled less than a year before absconding from supervision to live in the woods. He had been living with another paroled lifer until that man was arrested in March on suspicion of burglarizing a house and stealing a shotgun.
Back in prison, Dennan wept through his revocation hearing this month, begging for another chance. “Even though I believe I have changed, society doesn’t know that,” he sobbed. Parole commissioners endorsed his parole request to Brown.
Prison rebound stories are likely to continue as attaining parole gets easier, said Dr. Elizabeth Kita, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco who is helping California create peer coaching groups for parolees with life sentences.
In the past, she said, earning parole was much harder. Few lifers successfully ran the gantlet and fewer returned to prison.
“People are going to be coming out that aren’t fully cooked, that aren’t as resilient,” Kita said, “and they are going to need support and mentoring.”
Inmates who spent most of their adult lives imprisoned present particular problems, Rodriguez and other parole officials said. Decisions were made for them, from what to eat to how to dress and where to work. They spent years fantasizing about life on the outside and often emerge with unrealistic expectations and overly ambitious plans. Outside prison, promises to stay sober and relationships quickly dissolve.
David Hillary, who spent 16 years in prison on a life sentence for second-degree murder before being paroled three years ago, understands how difficult the transition can be. As a counselor to other parolees at a halfway house in Oakland, he’s seen others struggle.
Prisoners often fall hard when the euphoria of release withers in the face of reality, Hillary said.
“You have this belief that when you get out you can do all this, but it’s just not as easy,” he said.
Despite the difficulty that long-time offenders face in the free world, Gov. Brown, inmates’ advocates and others believe that they can — and do — change.
Others are less optimistic.
Santa Clara County prosecutor Ron Rico, now retired, presided over the murder conviction of repeat offender Joe Dawson, who in 1990 killed a fellow drug user and stole the dead man’s motorcycle.
Dawson, now a grandfather of six and sober for 26 years, was paroled in October 2013. Five months later, he was arrested on suspicion of burglarizing a house and stealing a gun.
Rico attended Dawson’s parole revocation hearing in October to argue against his release.
“He’s showing that the tiger didn’t change its [stripes],” Rico told the parole board. “The tiger just got grayer.”