California has more than 26,000 inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. Until recently, that possibility was a slim one; "lifers," who are mostly murderers, rarely got out of prison.
But that's changing. Since 2009, more than twice as many lifers have been paroled in California than in the previous two decades combined.
The shift in parole policy comes as California is under orders from the U.S. Supreme Court to relieve prison overcrowding. But state officials insist the rising number of lifers being paroled has nothing to do with that. Instead, they say, it's the confluence of several other factors, including a 2008 state Supreme Court ruling that made it harder to deny parole to inmates who are no longer considered dangerous.
Since that ruling, parole boards have recommended release at a much higher rate than in previous years — and Gov. Jerry Brown is blocking fewer paroles than his predecessors.
Today, even for murderers, the possibility of parole is more than just a pipe dream. The change is being felt on both sides of the prison walls.
Inmate: 'I've Moved So Far From That Person That I Was'
In a spare room just outside the main walls of San Quentin State Prison, inmate Kent Wimberly makes his case for parole. "Today I've moved so far from that person that I was," he says. "I've developed so many tools and so much understanding and maturity and so much more compassion for others."
In 1979, Wimberly stabbed and killed two people in San Diego. He was 17 at the time; today, he's 51. Wimberly tells the parole board how he's changed over his decades in prison: "[I] continue to work on myself and to monitor my behavior, my thoughts, my feelings."
This is the 12th time Wimberly has appeared before the parole board. After a three-hour hearing, parole board Commissioner Marisela Montes announces the decision: "We find that Mr. Wimberly does not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society or threat to public safety and is therefore now eligible for parole."
State data shows that Brown's appointed parole board commissioners are granting parole to prisoners like Wimberly at a much higher rate than in the past. In 2008, just 8 percent of lifers' hearings resulted in parole; in 2013, it was 29 percent.
The Board of Parole Hearings notes that one reason the parole grant rate is higher is that many inmates unlikely to win parole are cancelling their hearings rather than risk being denied and having to wait up to 15 years for their next hearing, as required under Marsy's Law, a voter-approved initiative. However, the board acknowledges that, even factoring in Marsy's Law, there has been a significant increase in parole grants.
Under Gov. Brown, Fewer Vetoes
But the parole board's recommendation is not the final word. California is one of just three states where governors can block parole decisions. And while previous California governors routinely vetoed parole for lifers, Gov. Brown is allowing 80 percent of parole recommendation grants to move forward.
Brown describes his approach toward making these parole decisions in simple terms: "to follow the law and evaluate very carefully each case, which I do every week." As for the difference between his rejection rate and those of previous governors, Brown says, "I don't know what they did and whether they read the record or whether they looked at the law." And, he points out, the law has changed.
He's referring to the 2008 decision by the California Supreme Court that ruled that parole denials could not be based on the viciousness of a crime alone. Instead, the justices said, there must also be evidence that an inmate is still a threat.
The case involved Sandra Davis Lawrence, who fatally shot and killed a woman during a jealous rage. The parole board recommended her release four times, but it was reversed by three different governors. The state Supreme Court cited "overwhelming" evidence that Lawrence was rehabilitated and therefore no longer dangerous.
Jennifer Shaffer, executive director of the State Board of Parole Hearings, says that decision changed everything. "As you can imagine, if their crime alone could keep them from being paroled forever then that was really not life with the possibility of parole. So there had to be something else," she explains.
Since that decision, more than 1,800 lifers have been released — more than twice the number paroled in the previous two decades combined.
'An Experiment With Public Safety'
Not everyone is happy about the trend. Christine Ward, the executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance, calls the new policy an experiment with public safety.
"It really is like playing Russian roulette," Ward says. "We just hope that that one time bomb doesn't go off and create that really serious, heinous crime that will leave not only that family devastated but the entire state devastated. We've seen it before."
Even the possibility of parole can be painful. At a recent rally for crime victims' families in Sacramento, Susan Hamlin spoke about the upset caused by having to attend a parole hearing for someone who victimized her family: "The dread of this hearing and fear of his possible release set in a full year prior to the hearing," Hamlin said.
The sidewalk was lined with posters showing photos of murdered relatives. Brown told the crowd that those victims weren't forgotten: "When you come here and you show us the pictures of real human beings who are your loved ones who were murdered, then it isn't abstract," he said. "It's a person."
For Older Parolees, A Low Rate Of Recidivism
A study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center found that among murderers paroled in California, fewer than 1 percent were returned to prison for new felonies. The main reason? Paroled lifers are typically older and therefore much less likely to commit violent crimes.
James Thomas can attest to that. He went to prison at the age of 17, after killing someone during a robbery in Los Angeles. He's now 47. After being denied parole 14 times, Thomas was finally released last year.
"Everybody makes mistakes — some a little more costly than others," Thomas says. "I think once a person makes that transition from one lifestyle to another, he should be or she should be given opportunity to live their life in peace and be respected for it."
Preparing For The Possibility Of Freedom
As more lifers win parole, they face a challenging transition: After decades inside jail, much of that time spent with little expectation that they'd ever be released, they must adjust to the world outside. The state's Department of Corrections has begun new programs to help inmates prepare — like a course on leadership at San Quentin State Prison.
It's called Exploring Leadership and Improving Transitional Effectiveness, or ELITE. Over the course of several weeks, the inmates learn how traits like impulsiveness, pessimism, anger and lack of personal empathy contribute to criminal behavior. They also learn skills like active listening, managing emotions and coalition building through consensus. Taking the course both preps inmates for life outside prison and helps them show they are suitable for parole.
On graduation day, about 50 inmates — most of them lifers — come up, one by one, for a diploma and a photograph. After the ceremony, Associate Warden Jeff Lawson says that as more and more lifers are granted parole and leave prison, the inmates here are taking notice.
"Most of these guys understand there is a light at the end of the tunnel now, so it just helps improve the overall environment for them," Lawson says. "And it gets the ones who were maybe straddling the fence to actually get off the fence and get on the right side."
Inmate Duane Reynolds just completed the leadership course. On the way back to his cell block, he describes the crime that sent him away: "I murdered my supervisor, high on drugs. So my life was out of control."
Reynolds was 30 at the time. He's now 54 and, while he's been turned down for parole three times before, he's hopeful that the next time will be different.
"The fact that people are going home is just really encouraging to a lot of individuals," Reynolds says.
Adjusting To Life Outside
Gregory Rivers was just released from prison after serving more than three decades for murder. The former gang member was 17 at the time. Now 55, he recalls his first full day on the outside: "That morning when I woke up, got dressed, I was scared to open the door. Because while I'm free physically, mentally I still have some work to do."
He worries that his newfound freedom will lead to trouble — and back to prison.
"I do plan to walk a straight and narrow path and give back to society," Rivers says. "You know, it's remarkable that I was given a second chance when I didn't give my victims a second chance."
At a Chinese restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., Rivers joins a dozen other former lifers recently released from prison. All the men were trained in prison to be drug and alcohol counselors by the Berkeley-based nonprofit Options Recovery Services. Sitting around a large corner table, they talk about life on the outside. They celebrate things most people take for granted, like getting driver's licenses, and share stories about getting re-acquainted with their children and grandchildren.
One of them, Vandrick Towns, has been out of prison less than a year. He's working as a substance abuse case manager, but he remembers how hard it was to find that first job. "For my first six months nobody wanted to touch me," he said. "When it got to the job interview, 'Oh you're very articulate, you're very educated. Oh, you're a parolee? Uh, sorry. Next.' "
Thomas, the man who was imprisoned for murder at 17, talks about humility and resisting disappointment after being turned down for jobs. The key, he says, is patience.
"Everything good will come to you if you just wait for it. I've tried to chase it and I guarantee you, it's an uphill battle trying to catch it," he says. "Because no matter how close you get, it's always gonna be one step ahead of you."
Many of California's 26,000 lifers will never be released. Those who do gain parole will need support to transition into their new lives — the kind of support these men have found as they make the most of their second chances.