Life with near-impossibility of parole

Chico attorney Ron Reed is a public defender who has represented teenagers for 23 years. “This is a subject I have a passion for,” he says, “after seeing how dumb and irresponsible a kid might be at 17 and then become a pretty good human being at 30.”

When 17-year-old Gregory Wright, a Las Plumas High student, turned down the District Attorney’s offer to a sentence that would allow him to work his way out of prison after seven years, he made the right choice.

A person sentenced to life with the possibility of parole has little hope of getting out of prison. Even though prisons are not designed to rehabilitate, many lifers turn their lives around. They will not, however, be released. There are about 29,000 lifers in California, and only a few dozen a year are paroled.

After resigning from the Board of Parole Hearings last year, Commissioner Belinda Harris-Ritter said: “I would be fine with a law that stated convicted murderers shall never be released from prison. But that is not the law we have. The law states that when these life inmates come up for parole, they are to be paroled unless it would be a public-safety problem. The burden is on the state to show there is a public-safety issue. Either follow this or change the law.”

In the last seven months of 2007, only 36 lifers were freed. Politics, organizational insincerity and uncourageous bureaucrats have caused the system to default and lose its integrity.

When Gregory sits in prison for the next 19 to 22 years, he will be in a world with its own rules and values.

Convicts separate themselves by race and gang. Every group will have a “shot caller” and those who are loyal to each other and the values of the gang. The majority of these run-of-the-mill “cons” will be released when the calendar says their time is up.

In addition to the gangs, Gregory should find the “programmers.” This small group is made up, mostly, of convicts who are serving indeterminate sentences. They avail themselves of all available education and rehabilitative resources. They stick together and look after one another and do their best to stay out of trouble.

They live with the shadow of hope that they may someday be free. Prior to any parole hearing they are given intensive psychological evaluations, and many receive psychology’s highest rating for public safety, that they are “no more dangerous than the average person.” But it is almost certain that the prisoners in this group will not be released.

Gregory finds himself in a grossly overcrowded prison system that accepts no responsibility to rehabilitate him, but with his sentence, he will be released when he’s done his time.

A system that considers his conduct, progress, and mental health and then fairly evaluates him for release after seven or even 15 years would be fairer and smarter. This system doesn’t exist in California.