Timeline: History of California Lifers Up for Parole

By Matt Levin

1991 — Gov. Pete Wilson assumes office. Despite his support of “tough on crime” measures like the state’s three-strikes law, Wilson allows the vast majority of parole recommendations for lifers to stand.

1994 — California voters pass the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” ballot measure, imposing a life sentence for any crime if an offender had two prior serious convictions. While not “lifers” in the traditional sense, the three-strikes law swells the ranks of prisoners sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.

1999 — Gov. Gray Davis takes office. Davis is far less lenient than his Republican predecessor, declaring shortly after taking office that “if you take someone else’s life, forget it.” Davis blocks more than 95 percent of the murder parole decisions that reach him.

November 2003 — Davis is recalled.

November 2003 — Gov. Schwarzenegger takes office. While more likely than Davis to sustain parole decisions, Schwarzenegger still reverses 70 percent of the murder cases that cross his desk. Schwarzenegger’s two terms in office will witness the beginning of a significant increase in lifers granted parole.

August 2008 — The California Supreme Court considers the case of Sandra Davis Lawrence, an inmate who had spent 24 years in prison convicted of murdering her lover’s wife. Lawrence’s parole had been overturned by Schwarzenegger. In a 4-3 decision overruling Schwarzenegger’s reversal, the court holds that inmates could not be denied parole solely on the basis of their crime. Instead, there must be evidence that the inmate is still a threat to public safety. The ruling shifts the way the parole board and the governor’s office treat lifer parole decisions.

November 2008 — California voters approve Proposition 9, or “Marsy’s Law”, which strengthened victims’ rights in lifer parole hearings. Victims, next of kin and other members of victims’ families are awarded the right to make statements at parole hearings. When victims attend hearings, parole is awarded half as often as when they do not attend.

2009 — In the wake of the Lawrence decision, the number of lifers granted parole and leaving prison begins to grow significantly.

2011 — Gov. Brown takes office. Brown’s reversal rate for murder cases never exceeds 20 percent. During his term, the Board of Parole Hearings, which now consists entirely of Brown appointees, grants parole at a historically high rate. Brown also faces pressure from federal courts to reduce the state’s bloated prison population.

September 2012 — Brown signs into law SB9, a bill sponsored by then-Sen. Leland Yee, that allows certain offenders to petition for resentencing if originally sentenced to life without parole as a youth.

November 2012 — California passes Proposition 36, which allows reduced sentences for three-strike inmates serving life sentences for a nonviolent third strike. More than 1,600 three-strikers who once faced life in prison have been released since 2012.

2014 — State law SB260 goes into effect, establishing new and more permissive parole criteria for offenders under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes. The law applies to offenders who have served at least 15 years of sentence, including those sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. The law could affect about 5,700 California inmates.

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