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California releasing lifers at a record pace

Parole approved for nearly 1,400

SAN FRANCISCO — Nearly 1,400 lifers in California’s prisons have been released over the past three years in a sharp turnaround in a state where murderers and others sentenced to life with the possibility of parole almost never got out.

Since taking office three years ago, Governor Jerry Brown has affirmed 82 percent of the 1,590 parole board decisions granting parole, resulting in a record number of inmates with life sentences going free.

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Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, authorized the release of 557 lifers during his six-year term, sustaining the board at a 27 percent clip. Before that, Governor Gray Davis over three years approved the release of two.

This dramatic shift in releases under Brown comes as the state grapples with court orders to ease a decades-long prison crowding crisis that has seen triple bunking and inmates shipped out of state.

Crime victims and their advocates have said the releases are an injustice to the victims and that the parolees could pose a danger to the public. More than 80 percent of lifers are in prison for murder, while the remaining are mostly rapists and kidnappers.

‘‘This is playing Russian roulette with public safety,’’ said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance.

The governor’s office said the overcrowding crisis plays no role in the parole decisions.

Rather, Brown’s office said, each case is addressed individually and Brown is bound by court orders that require state officials to ease the stringent parole requirements that have dramatically increased the time murderers spend in prison.

Today, an inmate convicted of first-degree murder can expect to serve an average of 27 years— almost twice what it was two decades ago before California became the fourth state to give governors the final decision on lifer paroles.

Since then, the number of lifers has grown from 9,000 to 35,000 inmates, representing a quarter of the state prison population. But two seminal California Supreme Court rulings in 2008 have significantly eased tough parole restrictions.

The court ordered prison officials to consider more than the severity of the applicant’s underlying crimes. It ruled that inmates’ records while incarcerated, plus their volunteer work, should count heavily in assessing early release.

State figures show that since the rulings, the board has granted parole to nearly 3,000 lifers, including 590 last year and a record 670 in 2012.

California’s parole board decides which prisoners serving life sentences are suitable for release, but governors have veto power.

Davis allowed only two inmates released out of 232 cases between 1999 and 2002. Schwarzenegger sustained the board at a 27 percent clip during his tenure when he was presented with 2,050 paroles granted by the board.

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