SACRAMENTO — State corrections officials agreed Monday to a major change in California’s parole system that could lead to earlier releases for convicted killers and other inmates sentenced to a maximum of life in prison but who are still eligible for parole.
The settlement stems from a legal action filed by an inmate at the prison in Soledad, who was sentenced to 15 years to life for a 1987 murder and claimed that his application for parole was routinely and unjustifiably denied for 10 years.
“For decades, the Board of Parole Hearings has left these guys completely in the dark as to when they might ever have a chance of getting out,” said Jon Streeter, the court-appointed attorney for the prisoner whose case prompted the unexpected settlement.
Under the settlement, approved Monday by state Court of Appeal Justice J. Anthony Kline in San Francisco, the state Board of Parole Hearings is required to establish the minimum time that should be served before an inmate is released.
Those sentences are to be based on the circumstances of the crime, so that killers convicted of torture, for instance, would draw the longest terms.
For inmates to be held beyond that minimum sentence, a parole board would have to demonstrate why they are a danger to the public.
Until now, parole commissioners waited until after prisoners were found suitable for release before calculating a minimum sentence. By then, many inmates had overstayed the minimum sentence for the circumstances of their crime.
The policy change could affect the time served of nearly 35,000 inmates — one out of four of those in California’s crowded prisons — who received maximum life sentences with the possibility of parole. Those included killers, kidnappers and 8,800 third-strike felons.
“It is a remarkable settlement,” said Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg, whose own research documented remarkably low crime rates by those life-sentence inmates who have been released.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not immediately comment on the settlement. It is signed by parole board Executive Officer Jennifer Shaffer.
Advocates for crime victims and their families were unsure Monday how the policy change might play out. They already are concerned that Gov. Jerry Brown and his appointed parole commissioners allow far more prisoners facing sentences up to life to be paroled than did previous governors. Since January, Brown has allowed 454 convicted killers to be paroled.
“Our biggest concern is that those people coming back into our communities are safe to do so,” said Christine Ward, executive director for the Sacramento-based Crime Victims Action Alliance. “We want to make sure in every decision the parole board makes and every decision the governor allows to go forward, that these individuals are safe and they will not create another victim.”
The state appellate judge who signed Monday’s settlement had questioned the constitutionality of California’s long prison stays in a separate case last year and, in that ruling, provided the legal road map for the case that led to the settlement.
Kline was the governor’s legal advisor in 1977, when Brown signed the determinate sentencing law, which sets fixed-length sentences for most crimes but left so-called term-to-life penalties in place for murder.
The settlement requires the state to begin crafting new policies “as soon as is practicable,” but does not take full effect until Kline decides the appeal of the man who filed the case, a 46-year-old prisoner who has been refused parole five times.
Roy Butler was convicted in the 1987 stabbing death of a man who regularly and severely beat a friend, court records show. Butler at first arranged an attack on the man to stop the abuse of the woman.
While the man sought treatment for those injuries, Butler and a friend decided the abuser should die. His accomplice stabbed the man as he walked into his apartment, while Butler, who panicked, hid in the bathroom with a knife.
He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison and had his first parole hearing in 1998.
Although Butler had no history of violence or drug use, parole boards repeatedly refused to release him. In 2012, commissioners dwelt on unsatisfactory post-release plans, and whether he showed enough insight into his crime.
“I’m sure you recognize it, but I would have liked not only for you to recognize it … but to articulate it,” one commissioner said, according to the parole hearing transcript.
Butler’s lawyers calculate that he should have been given a minimum term of 16 to 18 years, but that minimum term was never set by the parole board.
A 2011 Stanford study found that killers who are eligible for parole at 16 years because of credits for good behavior served an average of 27 years behind bars.