California Releases a Record Number of Inmates with Life Sentences
Date:  05-30-2014

One in five California ‘lifers” are eligible for parole
In 2009 the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prison system, In April 2013 the prisons were still at 149 percent capacity. Once again the Court ordered California to release about 9,500 prisoners to bring the capacity rate down to 137.5 (see Reentry Central April 16, 2013, “Court to Governor Brown: Fix Prison System Quickly”). Governor Gerry Brown received extensions to do so as deadlines neared and passed. But overcrowding is still a problem that has yet to be resolved. California is trying to undo the damage that its “Three Strikes” law has caused. Under “Three Strikes” someone convicted of a third crime would be sentenced to life in prison, even if, as in some cases, the crime committed was a minor offense, such as stealing socks, or possession of drug residue.

California, like some states, has “unfixed sentences.” KQED, a public media source for Northern California, revealed that in California the most common unfixed sentence is 15 years to life, and that one in five inmates are serving a sentence of life with possibility of parole.

In the past, most California governors were reluctant to release lifers because, with the pervading “tough on crime” attitude that swept the nation, releasing a lifer would be political suicide. But, KQED reports that under Governor Brown , “the prospects for lifer parole had improved dramatically, and now lifers are leaving prison in record numbers. In the first 2½ years of the Brown administration, more lifers were released from prison (1,205) than during the previous three administrations combined (1,168).”

Read KQED’s history of releasing lifers in California. Most people will be surprised to learn that since 1995 850 lifers convicted of murder were released, and only five were locked back up, and none of them for serious crimes.