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Bolar says lifers are forced to be model inmates, and because of tough-on-crime policies, they have to be if they want to get out. "To get a parole in California," explained UC Berkeley criminal justice expert Krisberg, "you have to demonstrate so much participation in programs, you have to have so much going for you, that to be released you practically need to be a saint."
And even that doesn't guarantee release. In 2011, just 450 of the roughly 10,000 eligible lifers in California were released — that's less than 5 percent. In 2010, it was 6 percent, and throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, less than 1 percent of lifers won their freedom. "Life in California has come to mean life; you die in prison," Krisberg said. "There's all of these prisoners that are in the last stages of life; they can't even get out of their beds. They're in no condition to cause any harm, but we still don't want to release them."
JB Wells was one of the lifers who got stuck in California's prison system. In 1978, Wells was working at Stanford's radiology film library. He had a well-paying job and a nice home — things were stable. But it all came crashing down when, one day, he unintentionally killed someone — he wouldn't tell me more than that. He was sentenced to fifteen years to life for second-degree murder and sent to San Quentin.
But Wells said his transition to prison was "pretty smooth." He participated in a number of therapeutic programs, joined a Vietnam vets group, kicked a steady drug habit, and held two high-level prison jobs. He also took advantage of his leisure time: "I became a published author. I've been in famous plays, I played the part of Lucky in Waiting for Godot, I played the part of John Brown in John Brown's Body, and I just had a really, really fabulous prison experience."
Wells was eligible for release in July of 1990. He knew that no one was being freed at the time, but he thought he might be an exception. He was wrong. For 21 years, Wells was denied parole, each time for the same reason. "They would always cite the gravity of the offense, the heinousness of the crime." Wells said the parole board "never mentioned anything about public safety."
Until 2008, California parole boards were allowed to deny release based purely on the nature of the crime. A 2010 Stanford study of parole-hearing transcripts found that for much of the past thirty years, parole boards labeled nearly all offenses "heinous, vicious, or cruel." To many, this made sense, but it also meant that countless inmates were kept locked up.
Routine denial of parole also blurred the lines between inmates who had committed lesser offenses and the state's most heinous criminals who were sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole. Life with parole is supposed to be reserved for people that are considered "fixable." The minimum term limit is designed to punish, and then the idea is to rehabilitate and release. "The penal code says very clearly that if you have a life sentence, you should be paroled at the first hearing," Krisberg said. "Only if [there's] something dangerous in your background should you stay in prison."
In 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that a parole board could no longer use a lifer's original offense alone to deny parole. The court decided that it was unfair to punish prisoners indefinitely for something they could no longer change. In the wake of the decision, JB Wells was released a year ago — 21 years past his minimum parole date, at the age of 68. "I'm just so grateful to still be alive, to have hair on my head and teeth in my mouth," Wells said, holding back tears.
The Supreme Court's decision freed many lifers, but its effects were mitigated by Proposition 9, an equally momentous amendment to the state constitution known as Marsy's Law. Approved by California voters in 2008, Marsy's Law became the nation's strongest "victims' bill of rights." The law allows crime victims to speak at parole board hearings. Although this isn't a frequent occurrence, when victims do speak at hearings the odds of release drop by half, according to a 2011 academic paper, Life in Limbo, coauthored by Weisberg of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
Marsy's Law has also greatly increased lifers' terms in another way. When denied parole, lifers used to be able to apply again the next year, so the window of time for freedom was never too long. But under Marsy's Law, inmates denied parole have to wait at least three years until their next hearing. As a result, the incidence of three-to-five-year deferrals has doubled since 2008. Also, for the first time in California's history, thousands of lifers have received seven-to-fifteen-year deferrals.
That's because Marsy's Law also can transform any disciplinary infraction into an additional five to fifteen years in prison. Krisberg said that because California prisons are so crowded, it's become nearly impossible for inmates to stay out of trouble. "I mean in the course of a day or a week, you are pretty likely to defend your life, to get into scuffles with people. And if you're a lifer, that's going to lead to more time added onto your sentence."
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