In California, Life With Parole Increasingly Leads To Freedom Until recently, inmates with life sentences — most for murder — were rarely released from prison, regardless of their behavior. But a 2008 court case and a new governor have changed their odds.

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In California, Life With Parole Increasingly Leads To Freedom

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. California has more than 26,000 inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. Until recently, they rarely got out of prison, but as Scott Shafer of member station KQED in San Francisco reports, the past few years have seen record numbers of lifers being paroled.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: In a spare room just outside the main walls of San Quentin prison, inmate Kent Wimberly is making his case for parole.

KENT WIMBERLY: Today, I have moved so far from that person that it was.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

SHAFER: In 1979, Wimberly stabbed and killed two people in San Diego. He was 17 at the time. Today, he's 51. In this scratchy recording made by the Board of Parole Hearings, Wimberly describes how he's changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

WIMBERLY: And to continue to work on myself and to monitor my behavior, my thoughts, my feelings.

SHAFER: This is the twelfth time Wimberly has appeared before the parole board. After a three hour hearing, Parole Board Commissioner Marisela Montes announces the decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

MARISELA MONTES: We find that Mr. Wimberly does not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society or threat to public safety and is therefore now ineligible for parole.

SHAFER: But that's not the final word. California is one of just three states where governors can block parole decisions. And while previous California governors routinely vetoed parole for lifers, Governor Jerry Brown is allowing 80 percent of parole recommendations to move forward. And not everyone is happy about the trend. Christine Ward with the Crime Victims Action Alliance calls the new policy an experiment with public safety.

CHRISTINE WARD: It really is like playing Russian Roulette. We just hope that that one time bomb doesn't go off and create that really serious heinous crime that will leave not only that family devastated but the entire state devastated. We've seen it before.

SHAFER: At a rally for crime victims families in Sacramento recently, Susan Hamlin describes the upset caused by having to attend a parole hearing for someone who victimized her family.

SUSAN HAMLIN: And the dread of this hearing and fear of his possible release set in a full year prior to the hearing.

SHAFER: The capital sidewalk is lined with posters showing photos of relatives who were murdered. Governor Brown tells the crowd they aren't forgotten.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN: When you come here and you show us the pictures of real human beings who are your loved ones, who were murdered, then it isn't abstract. It's a person.

SHAFER: Afterwards, I asked thegovernor to describe his approach toward making parole decisions for lifers.

BROWN: To follow the law and to evaluate very carefully each case, which I do every week.

SHAFER: Your record is very different than previous governors.

BROWN: Well, I don't know what they did, whether they read the record, or when they looked at the law. The law has changed.

SHAFER: Brown is referring to a 2008 decision by the California Supreme Court. It ruled that parole denials could not be based on viciousness of a crime alone. The justices said there must also be evidence that an inmate is still dangerous. Since then, the number of lifers released is more than twice the number paroled in the previous two decades combined. A study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center found that among murderers paroled in California, fewer than 1 percent returned to prison for new felonies. The main reason is that paroled lifers are typically older and therefore much less likely to commit violent crimes. James Thomas can attest to that. He went to prison at the age of 17 after killing someone during a robbery in Los Angeles. He's now 47. After being denied parole 14 times, Thomas was finally released last year.

JAMES THOMAS: Everybody makes mistakes. Some are a little more costly than others. I think once a person makes that transition from one lifestyle to another then he should be or she should be given an opportunity to be able to live their life in peace and be respected for it.

SHAFER: Given the rising number of lifers winning parole, the State Department of Corrections has begun new programs to help inmates prepare for life on the outside. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

BLOCK: And tomorrow on the program we'll hear how California's new parole policies are affecting inmates and former lifers who get released.

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