California Gov. Jerry Brown is letting convicted killers leave prison on parole at a far higher rate than previous governors, only rarely using his power to block decisions of the parole board.
Early in his term, Brown has let 106 of 130 convicted killers' parole releases stand -- about 82 percent, according to Brown's office and records provided in response to a California Public Records Act request.
Brown's deference to the state Board of Parole Hearings is in contrast to his predecessors, who more aggressively used their power to overturn parole grants.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger let stand only about 27 percent of parole decisions. Gov. Gray Davis was even less lenient, letting only nine of 374 paroled killers out of prison while he was governor.
"If you take someone else's life, forget it," Davis said shortly after he took office in 1999. "I see no reason to parole people who have committed an act of murder."
A spokeswoman said Thursday that Brown is basing his parole decisions on public safety concerns and a 2008 state Supreme Court ruling that a governor may not deny parole based solely on the gravity of a prisoner's crime, but requires some evidence that he or she remains dangerous.
"Hundreds of cases were coming back where governors and the parole board were being sued," spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford said. "The two guiding principles are that law as well as public safety."
Now 73 years old and in his third term, Brown, a Democrat and former attorney general, also may be less encumbered by political ambition.
"When someone's running for election, a favorite question from the press is, 'Didn't you let X number of murderers out of jail?' " said law professor Heidi Rummel of the University of Southern California's Post-Conviction Justice Project. "It's a hard question to answer without a little bit of context."
The political danger of prisoner releases was perhaps no better demonstrated than in 1988, when Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor, found his presidential campaign ravaged by ads featuring released killer Willie Horton.
That was the year Californians granted governors the power to reverse parole grants for murderers.
The relatively large number of cases in which Brown has not intervened alarms victim rights advocates, who were critical even of Schwarzenegger's release rate.
Christine Ward, director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance, said Brown's numbers are "absolutely worse" than Schwarzenegger's, but she said she has not yet reviewed the cases he has considered.
"The large number does cause us concern, and we will be investigating," Ward said.
Schwarzenegger, a Republican, suggested early in his first term that he would defer often to the parole board, allowing release of more convicted killers than Davis, a Democrat. But his reversals resulted in numerous lawsuits, with some prisoners freed on court-issued writs of habeas corpus.
The state parole board has historically granted parole to relatively few convicted killers.
(Contact David Siders at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)