LOS ANGELES — Watch out California, Gov. Jerry Brown has commuted 20 convicted murderers and granted more than 1,100 pardons.
Among them, Thomas Yackley fatally stabbed two men at a party; Kimberly LaBore took part in a home invasion that ended with one person dead; Virgil Holt killed his boss at a fast-food restaurant shortly after he’d been fired.
All are among the 20 killers serving life sentences that were recently commuted by California’s Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown, reported The Mercury News.
With barely four months left in office, California’s longest-serving governor is granting forgiveness to record numbers of criminals.
Brown has generously issued more than 1,100 pardons benefiting a wide array of individuals, including those convicted of dealing drugs, driving while intoxicated and forgery. While a few call them mercy, many in law enforcement say they’re foolish.
Moreover, the tally is staggeringly greater than the totals of his immediate predecessors. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger granted 15 pardons, and Democrat Gray Davis ended with zero.
Perhaps more remarkable are the commutations, which grant parole hearings to – and often spell early release for – criminals who previously may have had no chance of ever being paroled. Brown has issued 82 in the past seven years, far more than any California governor since at least the 1940s, according to the Mercury News.
Left leaning criminal justice reformers nationwide applaud him. However, police and victims rights advocates are livid.
“2018 is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Patricia Wenskunas, founder and chief executive of the Crime Survivors Resource Center. “The sad reality is, California is not a victim-friendly state. It’s an offender-friendly state.”
Yet this was not always the case.
California was once a leader in tough-on-crime policies, which turned its prisons into inmate warehouses. Then in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in the state’s prison system amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The decision accelerated a wave of legal reforms that have reduced the prison population by 25 percent. About 115,000 inmates remain locked up in the state’s 33 facilities. The vast majority of those released to date have been nonviolent offenders. And the state simply has not had the will to build more prison space despite the vast amount of available land.
Brown’s commutations for the 20 murder convicts were tucked into a larger batch of pardons and commutations that he handed out last month. The designation isn’t synonymous with freedom but amounts to a reduction of an original sentence. For these 20 men and women, most of whom had been sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, it means they’ll be granted a hearing.
The governor does not view this as leniency. Rather, he sees his action as a societal course correction. “There has been an overshoot in the time many people expect [criminals] to be locked up in a cage or cell,” he said in an interview.
In the 1970s, those convicted of first-degree murder tended to serve about a decade for their crimes, he noted; now it isn’t unusual for such sentences to span a half-century. Some 5,000 prisoners today are serving life sentences without parole in California.
Longtime prisoners who are making a good-faith effort to turn their lives around should have a shot at getting out, said Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian. “I think there’s wisdom in having the possibility of hope.”
Nevertheless, while he’s offering good will to convicts, he’s also undermining the will of the people in general. But then again, the state voted for him, so there seems to be incongruence in what they want versus who they put in office.
Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said she has never seen so bold a move to spur early release for people convicted of violent crimes.
“It really stands out,” she said – in a good way, she added. Prisoners serving time for such offenses tend to age out of crime. “As a country, we need to move away from life without parole as a sentence altogether.”
Many California lawmakers and public safety officials have a different, harshly critical view of the governor’s move. Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, said the latest commutations “are motivated by [Brown’s] personal philosophy of deincarceration.” And Republican Assemblyman Matthew Harper of Orange County called the commutations “deeply concerning. It is another action by Gov. Brown in a long line of policy that makes California less safe.”
To victims rights advocates, the commutations feel like an injustice.
“Governor Brown, can you commute my daughter and bring her back?” said Jennifer Lundy, whose 3-year-old was killed in 1993 by a man living with her family. “What have you done to restore my life?”
In addition to his pardons and commutations, the governor has approved parole for more than 2,300 “lifers” sentenced for murder. (California is one of just three states where the governor has the last word on parole-board decisions.)