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Newsom seeks to halt parole for some murderers and serious offenders. What does that signal?

Veches
Trenton Veches, a former Newport Beach youth program supervisor, was charged with 25 felony counts of lewd acts with minors in 2003 and sentenced to two life terms. Shown here during his trial, Veches is now about to be paroled.
(Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times)

Trenton Veches liked to suck on the toes of young boys and has spent the last 16 years in prison because of it.

A jury convicted him in 2003 at age 32 in a case that shook Newport Beach, where he was a supervisor in the city’s youth recreation program. He was tried on multiple counts of child molestation and sentenced to two concurrent life terms after being caught in the act by a co-worker.

Last week — despite an attempt by Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop it — Veches won parole.

Veches’ impending release is one of 33 cases in which Newsom, since taking office, has attempted to stop a serious offender from receiving parole, according to documents provided by the governor’s office. Parole hearings usually take place in front of a two-person panel. The governor can’t revoke these paroles but can ask the state’s 15-member Board of Parole Hearings to review them.

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Newsom also has stopped 46 paroles for murderers, a different process that allows him to act unilaterally through executive powers.

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for Newsom, said, “Each case that comes before the governor is evaluated on its own merits and receives careful review and consideration.”

The interventions mark a steep increase from those undertaken by former Gov. Jerry Brown and are a departure from the progressive criminal justice reform stance that Newsom has championed, including his recent moratorium on the death penalty.

In 2018, the parole board reviewed seven cases at Brown’s request and Brown reversed 28 paroles for murderers, a steady decline from his peak of 133 reversals in 2014. Newsom has more than quadrupled requests for reviews of serious offenders in three months in office and is on pace to match Brown’s peak year of reversals for murder cases.

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Newsom’s spike in parole interventions has some wondering whether he is trying to keep more serious offenders in prison or just taking a cautious approach to a dicey issue.

“The governor’s reversal rate [on paroles] has dramatically increased over Brown,” said Charles Carbone, Veches’ attorney and a specialist in parole hearings. “The question now becomes: Is it a matter of a new policy?”

Newsom’s active role in opposing releases might point to a growing political problem for him within the state’s parole system: rising numbers of offenders eligible for release because of criminal justice reforms, including Proposition 57, a measure championed by Brown. More so than any of his predecessors, California’s new governor likely will be responsible for overseeing tough decisions on whether certain sex offenders and criminals with multiple felonies should be freed.

California holds between 4,000 to 5,300 parole hearings each year, according to a recent legislative report. Next year, that is expected to jump to 7,200 and rise again to 8,300 the following year — changes wrought by Proposition 57 alone could add up to 4,000 new hearings, according to Michael Romano, head of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School. There are currently 34,136 California inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

There is an incredible backlog and bottleneck,” Romano said.

Veches’ parole was not the result of reforms. But he is the kind of potential parolee, complicated and controversial, whom politicians fear and Newsom might increasingly encounter. Along with Proposition 57, passed in 2016, a series of legislative changes and legal rulings has added multiple categories of offenders to the roll of those eligible for release. Among them are offenders who committed crimes in their youth; inmates serving time for crimes other than violent felonies; potentially some sex offenders serving sentences for crimes such as human trafficking, pimping a minor, or raping a drugged or unconscious victim; and those who previously served time for violent sex offenses but are currently incarcerated for other types of crimes.

While some governors, such as Gray Davis, took a hard line on parole, Brown and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger allowed an increase in releases, said Keith Wattley, executive director of an Oakland legal nonprofit that specializes in prisoners’ rights. Brown dramatically decreased the number of both reversed murder paroles and non-murder cases flagged by the governor’s office during his terms.

Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, said Newsom is keenly aware of the potential for political danger after his controversial decision to halt executions. Many criticized Newsom for ignoring the will of California voters, who rejected a ballot measure to abolish the death penalty and approved another to speed up executions in 2016.

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“The thing that keeps governors awake at night is the prospect that a bad person will be let out and go on to commit heinous crimes and the governor will be held responsible,” Pitney said. “After the death penalty reprieves, he is very sensitive to that risk and does not want to be the next Michael Dukakis.”

During the 1988 presidential campaign, Dukakis came under fire for defending a Massachusetts law that allowed criminals to be released from prison for weekend furloughs. Strategists for George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign linked Dukakis to the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman and stabbed her boyfriend after escaping while on furlough. Dukakis, then a Democratic governor of Massachusetts, lost the election.

Newsom’s efforts to prevent the release of criminals poses little downside, Pitney said.

“I think he can make a case that he’s being consistent: We should be careful of releasing prisoners and careful about the punishments we impose,” Pitney said.

Romano said some of the interventions might be leftovers from Brown’s time in office and are too few in number to judge.

Wattley, head of the nonprofit that specializes in prisoners’ rights, agreed it was “too early to know … how alarmed to be,” but the possibility of parole raised by Brown gave inmates hope and created an incentive for rehabilitation. Newsom’s interventions, if ongoing, could undo that, he said.

Wattley said paroling serious offenders is necessary to decrease the number of people incarcerated, a key component of criminal justice reform.

“You can’t do that unless you find a pathway home for people convicted of serious or violent crimes,” he said.

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Sex offenders in particular are politically perilous candidates for parole. Proposition 57 backers promised it wouldn’t free sex offenders, and state prison officials wrote rules for its implementation that excluded them. But a state court ruled last year that the wording of Proposition 57 didn’t give leeway for a blanket prohibition, particularly for inmates with past sex offenses currently incarcerated on other charges.

Fifteen of the cases Newsom has flagged for reconsideration involve inmates with current or past sex offenses, according to the CDCR.

Sonya Shah, executive director of a Bay Area nonprofit that works with sex offenders, said sex crimes are left out of criminal justice reform and often lumped together in public perception despite encompassing a “spectrum of harms” to victims.

“We are not willing to have the nuance with sexual crime,” Shah said. “The way [sex offenders] are painted, they are monsters.”

On the day the parole board granted Veches his release, it also heard 15 other reviews at Newsom’s request, including for Jose Valencia, convicted in 1997 and serving a life sentence for sex crimes and torture.

In emotional testimony, Valencia’s former spouse begged the board not to release him, detailing how he beat her in the head with a hammer while she was pregnant and dug a grave in the backyard, ordering her into it to see whether she fit.

Newsom questioned whether Valencia had sufficient insight into his crimes. The board agreed and sent Valencia back for another hearing.

Veches’ mother, Joyce Ormes, attended the meeting to speak for her son. Contesting that release, Newsom again cited a lack of insight, including Veches’ denial of an allegation by a victim that Veches penetrated him with a finger.

Ormes said when Newsom challenged Veches’ parole it was “heartbreaking,” and while the harm of his crimes is significant, it is not the same as the damage caused by a violent offender such as Valencia.

“This thing about grouping all sex offenders into one has haunted me,” Ormes said. “I know the governor is new and I understand his concerns, but my son won’t be back [in prison]. … He’s probably one of the best candidates for parole.”

How a list of 23 crimes now dominates California’s debate over prison punishment »


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