Two bills transform CA parole system

Thomas Hawk / flickr

Thomas Hawk / flickr

California officials are preparing to implement the state’s latest steps toward a transformed parole system for incarcerated youths.

The changes were spearheaded by state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, who led two bills through closely fought battles in Sacramento. Senate Bill 261 and Senate Bill 230 were both narrowly passed. The first “will expand those hearings to include inmates who committed their crime before the age of 23,” as the Sacramento Bee reported, while the second “mandates that prisoners be paroled once they are found suitable by the board. According to supporters, some inmates continue to be held for years after they are deemed suitable for parole because of enhancements that the board can add to their base terms, such as for additional criminal charges that did not result in a conviction.”

Hancock has played a key role in criminal justice oversight this year. She took the lead in investigating statewide prison abuse, especially at the remote High Desert State Prison in Susanville. A report on the abuse, drafted by the Office of the Inspector General, “was issued after the Senate Rules Committee asked the OIG to review the practices at the prison after a number of allegations surfaced that raised concern about whether some members of the HDSP staff were engaged in a pattern or practice of using inappropriate and excessive force against inmates and whether there was adequate protection of inmates from harm at the prison,” Hancock’s office said in a statement. Earlier this year, Hancock called for the closure of the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, calling the state prison “decrepit and unsafe.”

Persistent challenges

Californians have been haunted for years by the thorny challenges involved in reforming parole rules without adding uncomfortable risks. This year, changes to residency restrictions on paroled sex offenders began taking significant effect. “As a result of California’s policy change, more than 4,200 of the state’s 5,900 offenders no longer qualify for the residency restrictions,” the Associated Press observed. “However, their whereabouts still are monitored with tracking devices and they must tell local law enforcement agencies where they live.”

And in 2012 and 2014, legislators passed two different bills designed to start bringing greater clemency to youth offenders behind bars. “Convicted of murder and attempted robbery at the age of 16, Edel Gonzalez spent 23 years in prison before the passage of two state laws that ultimately led to his release,” as Al Jazeera America reported last year. “The first, Senate Bill 9, resulted in a new sentence for Gonzalez with the possibility of parole. The second, Senate Bill 260, mandated that his parole board consider his diminished culpability as a youth offender.”

Political risk

But Gonzalez, although he displayed the kind of exemplary behavior in prison that made him the first to be affected by the new rules, was not an American citizen. Upon release, he was to be deported. This year, the intersection of unlawful immigration and crime has become a hot-button election season issue — especially in California, where the San Francisco release of a five-time deportee with seven lifetime felony convictions drew withering criticism after the man shot and killed Kathryn Steinle as she strolled along the city’s tourist-heavy waterfront with her father.

The episode captured nationwide attention, fueling the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and sharpening the already fierce divide within the state Republican Party over its approach to immigration and deportation. “Trump called for building a wall between the United States and Mexico after tweeting his ‘heartfelt condolences'” to Steinle’s family, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Meanwhile, revising its party platform, the state GOP “approved wording that Republicans ‘hold diverse views’ on the fate of millions of immigrants in the country without proper papers, and omitted language that said allowing them to stay ‘undermines respect for the law,'” recalled the Los Angeles Times.

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