ARI SHAPIRO, host:
More than two million adults are serving sentences in American prisons and jails today. In California alone, more than a hundred seventy thousand are behind bars - about 20 percent of them serving life sentences. The vast majority will never be paroled - but lately, some have been getting out.
In the last five years, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has paroled more prisoners than the state's two previous governors combined.
Nancy Mullane reports.
NANCY MULLANE: Word passed like wildfire throughout San Quentin State Prison one day recently. The governor's office had sent the fax: a lifer was getting paroled.
Mr. ERIC MESSICK (Legal Affairs Coordinator, San Quentin State Prison): I handed them the letter that always comes out of the governor's office.
MULLANE: That's Eric Messick. He's the legal affairs coordinator at San Quentin State Prison.
Mr. MESSICK: Where the top of the cell door meets the ceiling of the cell, there's a little crease in there that I was able to slide the paperwork through. He reached out and grabbed it. It's just good news.
Mr. JULIUS DOMANTAY (San Quentin State Prison Prisoner): You know, what can you do? I said I want to give him a hug. The door was closed.
MULLANE: Inmate Julius Domantay.
Mr. DOMANTAY: I said, thank you, man. Thank you very much. You know, then he left. And then as soon as he left, I just started crying.
MULLANE: In 1976, when Domantay was just 17, he was convicted of murder. Now, at the age of 48, after serving more than 31 years of a seven years-to-life sentence, he's found out he's been granted parole by the California Board of Parole Hearings and by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Domantay is one of more than 24,000 inmates serving an indeterminate life sentence in California state prison for murder. Indeterminate means they may be paroled after serving their minimum sentence, if they can convince members of the Board of Parole Hearings and the governor they're no longer a threat to society.
Jonathan Simon is a law professor at UC Berkeley, and author of the book "Governing through Crime." Simon says, historically, it was commonplace for an estimated 20 percent of lifers in California prisons to be paroled each year.
Professor JONATHAN SIMON (Law, UC Berkeley; Author, "Governing through Crime"): It would've been quite routine for people pretty close to the time of their eligibility to get a parole date and to get paroled.
MULLANE: But that changed in 1988. Voters passed an initiative giving the governor final authority over parole for inmates serving life sentences for murder.
Prof. SIMON: This ballot initiative made each one of these decisions a personal accountability point for the governor.
MULLANE: Over the next 14 years, that personal accountability or political vulnerability translated into fewer than one-tenth of one percent of lifers paroling out of California prisons each year. From 1999 through 2003, Governor Gray Davis paroled just eight prisoners serving life sentences. Then Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor and things changed again.
In his first four years in office, he's paroled 173 lifers. That's an average of more than 40 each year, a more than fivefold increase over his two predecessors.
Mr. BILL MAILE (Spokesperson, Governor Schwarzenegger): The governor considers each case individually. There is no pattern or policy.
MULLANE: Bill Maile is the governor's spokesperson.
Mr. MAILE: He weighs the merits. His decision is based on the record of information in front of him.
MULLANE: Gloria Romero is Democrat majority leader of the California state senate. She says granting parole for someone convicted of murder is one of the most difficult decisions any governor has to make.
Ms. GLORIA ROMERO (Democrat Majority Leader, California State Senate): If anything, I think you could say the governor probably has tried more so to depoliticize to the fullest extent that he can these parole recommendations and I applaud him for it.
MULLANE: Criminal justice experts say the governor's willingness to parole lifers is being watched closely across the nation. Dr. Bruce Western is a social scientist at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Mr. BRUCE WESTERN (Social Scientist, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): I think it may indicate part of a broader sea change in criminal justice politics and policy in a less punitive direction.
MULLANE: Less punitive and more in the direction of actual rehabilitation. That's what San Quentin warden Robert Ayers says is the best side effect of this new possibility for parole.
Mr. ROBERT AYERS (Warden, San Quentin State Prison): If somebody comes up and they're suitable for parole, they've done what society's told them to do, then we as a society should do what I think is the morally right thing to do here.
MULLANE: It may also be the most economically sound thing to do. It costs the state of California at last $44,000 a year to keep a lifer incarcerated.
For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane.
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