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tv   KQED Newsroom  PBS  August 23, 2014 2:00am-2:31am PDT

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up next, a special edition of kqed newsroom making a bet on rehabilitation for prisoners serving life sentences. >> i committed first degree murder back in 1982. >> california has some 26,000 lifers behind bars. now more, many more, are being paroled due to changes in the criminal justice system. do they pose a risk to public safety? >> in my humble opinion, some of these parolees are ticking timebombs. >> will rehabilitation work? >> a strong public safety interest in making sure they're prepared when they do get released.
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good evening. and welcome to "kqed newsroom." eye thuy vu. we dedicate tonight's program to the california criminal justice system that affects prisoners serving life sentences. 15 years to life, 25 years to life, mostly for murder. under governor jerry brown's administration a record number of so-called lifers are being granted parole. the governor's office says this has nothing to do with the need to reduce prison overcrowding. instead they insist the trend is driven mostly by court rulings that make it harder to deny parole. scott shafer takes a look at a no program aimed at addressing the growing number of lifers getting out. >> reporter: hundreds of inmates mere at solano prison in
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vacaville are hoping for a second chance, and officials think the key is rehabilitation. >> hurt people. >> reporter: these prisoners are doing sentences like 25 years to life, some for the most heinous crimes imaginable. >> the hurt that we carry, we take it out on somebody else. >> reporter: they don't know if they'll ever get out. still, they're trying to understand what went wrong and how they ended up here. >> i see your hands up. >> one of my biggest fears in the past was rejection, right? and communication skills were lacking, to say the least, because of my alcohol and drug abuse. >> in my family, a lot of it always went back to, you know, quit complaining. i'll give you something to cry about. >> reporter: some of these inmates are trained to work as mentors to fellow offenders. take jose hernandez. >> we can't do nothing to change the past of what we did because it's written in permanent ink.
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but we do have a choice today. we have the tools now that we didn't have 20 or 25 years ago. >> reporter: in 1993, hernandez strangled his ex-girlfriend to death. last year the parole board found him suitable for release, but governor brown reversed it saying he thought fernandez was too high a risk to public safety. >> i want to go back to the board and i want to go back to the psychologist and be as best as a person i can be every single day. >> reporter: programs like these are part of a major shift that jerry brown has brought to criminal justice. for the first time in decades, rehabilitation for long-term inmates is a funding priority. some classes are being aimed directly at lifers, from anger management to how to reconcile with their own family members if they're released. >> the situation -- >> reporter: instructor although wanda green is working with them on empathy for their victims. >> probably i'm at a point where
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i just don't care anymore, right, because somebody caused me to be a victim. the toughest part is when you have the person who believes they were valid in doing the crime. the gang-related crime where they believe it was either me or them. i had no other way to make another decision. >> reporter: today is graduation for one group of lifers who have completed a series of classes. >> i'm really grateful to be here. i've never done this before. >> reporter: the special guest is not a typical graduation speaker. six years ago theresa lost her son matt, a fairfield city councilman who was shot and killed at age 22. a victim of mistaken identity. she remembers the night she got the call. >> it was my friend terry, and she said, i think matt got shot. i'm like -- what? and she goes, yeah. i think he got shot. and i said, okay, let me go.
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let me call his phone. and i kept calling his phone. and he didn't answer. >> reporter: this is one way that inmates hear about the impact crime has on their victims and families. james ward responds passionately. >> i could do a thousand years in prison, 10,000 years in prison, and it would never match what you have done. when you think about unfairness, my fellow murderers, think about her, and that is real unfairness. can i say that i have been treated unfairly because the governor pulled my date. >> reporter: ward has spent half his life in prison for killing his ex-girlfriend over 30 years ago. he's now 64. after being turned down five times he was recently found suitable for parole and will be released november 5th, unless governor brown blocks it. >> they don't want to get out of
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prison, but i understand the cost that that symbolizes. >> reporter: ward says the classes inside prison have helped him understand the pain he's caused others. >> i have the opportunity to get soon and get out and pick up the pieces of my life. they don't have any place where they can go appeal and say, bring my loved one back. they don't have that. so that's, you know, i think about that. >> mr. sternberg. >> reporter: in past decades only a trickle of lifers got out. parole boards were conservative, and past governors reversed up to 95% of parole recommendations. but in 2008 a state supreme court ruling made it harder to deny parole on the basis of the crime itself. since then nearly 2300 lifers have gotten out. deputy director for rehabilitation roger meyer says it's now a priority to help these offenders prepare for life on the outside. >> some of these inmates, when they came to prison, there were
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no cell phones. they never used an atm before. they for some 20-some years they've been told what to eat, what to wear, when to get up, when to report. it would be remiss if we didn't try to ensure that they're successful when they do go out to society. >> reporter: these programs promote personal growth for the inmate and help show they're suitable for parole. rehabilitation reduces the chance that offenders will commit new crimes says cynthia flores delion. >> how can i make my life better so i can get out and be successful and not revictimize? >> reporter: in fact, statistics show that lifers who get out are among the least likely to commit another felony says uc berkeley criminologist barry crispberg. >> part of that is they stay such a long time and when they get out, they're old. the single thing we know from
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criminology is that getting older reduces your possibility of committing a crime. if you combine that with programs preparing people for release, you can make those rates even better. >> i'm thankful that i have, that i can share with them. >> reporter: for bridget nevins, statistics are no reassurance. her father was killed in 1990 by an employee who struck him in the head with a wrench 24 times. >> if you crossed that line, that you're capable of crossing that line in the future. there was always this comfort that i had knowing that this person was in jail and that, you know, i was protected from that. >> reporter: in june her father's killer was found suitable for parole. nevin worries that the programs inside prison are coaching offenders on what to say to the parole board. >> our community, i feel, at large is put into a vulnerable situation. and in my humble opinion, some of these parolees are ticking
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timebombs. we're basing all our comfort on statistics probability that now these individuals aren't capable of committing crimes just based on their age. >> reporter: nefbvin will urge e governor to reverse parole for her father's killer. freedom brings new challenges. here in downtown berkeley the recovery services offers exoffenders a place to land when they get out. tom gorum is program director. >> we didn't have housing, we didn't have a mental health clinic, and this program built on what clients show us that they need. what they needed was a safe place to stay. >> reporter: two years ago that's what david hillary was looking for. he had been granted parole after serving 18 years on a life sentence for second degree murder. >> what do i do? it's like, i've been gone for 18 years. i didn't have a driver's license. i didn't have insurance. i'm on parole. i don't have a doctor.
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finding these little nuances of what being a responsible man was, learning that is -- >> reporter: while behind bars hillary obtained certification to work as a substance abuse officer. after his release options gave him a room in transitional housing and put him to work teaching classes for recovering addicts at options. >> two things in life quite frequently, triggers and warning signs. what's the difference? i'm living different because i don't necessarily think i have the right to a second chance. i believe that if you see my actions are indicative of a different person, have some compassion. >> reporter: california still has some 26,000 lifers in prison, more than any other state. criminologist barry crispberg
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says there's no one size fits all solution to crime and punishment. >> the issue is not punishment. we're going to punish these people. the question is what's enough. you know, is 20 years enough? is 25 years enough? is 35 years enough? >> reporter: as policymakers grapple with that question, the state hopes to expand programs to help more lifers win freedom. >> as we just heard, lifers must demonstrate that they won't be a risk to public safety if they get out of prison. the governor has veto power, but the decisions are made by the board of parole hearings. earlier, i spoke with the board's executive officer jennifer shafer. jennifer shafer, thank you for joining us. >> thank you for having me. >> you look at thousands of cases every year, what do you look for when deciding whether to release an inmate? >> well, our first consideration is, of course, public safety and whether the person currently
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poses a risk of public safety. but we look at a variety of factors. we look -- we're required by law to look at all reliable and relevant information. so that means we look at the crime, we take input from the prosecutor. we take input from the victim and law enforcement agencies. we read through all the crime reports. we read through any appellate decisions, and then we look at all of their record while they've been incarcerated. >> what are you looking for? how do you know they're being sincere as opposed to saying the things they think the parole board wants to hear? >> a lot has to do with looking at the record. we do a tremendous amount of preparation. our commissioners have an entire day, every monday is what we call our dark days where they prepare for those hearings, reviewing those files so that when they go in, they have a really good idea of the facts surrounding that particular inmate. so then they engage in a conversation with the inmate. and really what they're looking for the who were you at the time
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of the crime and who are you today. >> why is there such a big increase in number of lifers being released? >> well, it's interesting. for the last two calendar years our grant rate has been stable. it's been at about 14% of scheduled hearings. i think what a lot of people are seeing is the effects of a 2008 california state supreme court decision wherein the state supreme court came out and basically said, it's not enough that you find that the crime or statis factors pose a risk of dangerousness, you have to show that the person today is currently dangerous. and the way they explained it, which i think makes the most sense, is they explained that inmates who are sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, they have to have an opportunity for parole. so if the board could deny
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somebody parole based on the static factors of their crime alone, then they really don't have a possibility for parole. so there has to be something a little bit more. that's what the supreme court said in 2008. since then we've been working very hard to train our commissioners on the law and apply that law to the facts of each case. >> and even with that training, though, as you know, parole decisions are part science, part psychology test, part subjective judgement. given the numbers being released, isn't it a matter of time before another horrible crime might happen? >> we certainly hope not. to date we have a very, very low recidivism rate for lifer who would get through the parole suitability process. it's less than 1%. and that's pretty significant. it's something that we're very proud of. we certainly hope nobody will ever be heard as a result of an
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offender that we have found suitable. >> governor brown has a really different approach on this. he's affirmed 82% of parole board decisions whereas previous governors mostly reversed the decisions. gray davis, for example, only ashirmed two. how much does his philosophy factor into your decision? >> he certainly doesn't interact directly with our commissioners, but i certainly have the same kinds of philosophy as the governor, which is adherence to the law and we don't -- one of our main goals is to produce decisions that won't be overturned on appeal. and we've been are have successful in that. so i really want to comment on prior governors, but their decisions to reverse our grants were then reversed by the court. so it's not as if those lifers didn't get out.
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they got out as a result of a grant from the board and a reversal of the governor's reversal. >> well, thk fank you for takin the time and explaining the process to us, jennifer shafer, thank you. >> thank you. >> and for a deeper look at some of these issues i'm joined by three people with different perspectives. gary lieberstein is district attorney for napa county. marvin spieth overcease parole agents for the california department of corrections and rehabilitation and carla javits is president and ceo of redf. welcome to all of you. let me begin with you, marvin, there's some 80 lifers getting out of prison on average in california. 80 a month. what do they face? they get 200 bucks and a bus ticket. then what? >> thank you, scott. the parole department has several issues that come to fruition when a lifer is released on parole. first, we have victim and
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survivor issues to deal with. >> what do you mean by that? they have to be notified? >> we have an entire victim and survivor services unit at the department of corrections and there are a myriad of services that go along with that. victims, they're going to feel like they're being revictimized by seeing this individual back out on the street. the other factor is a lot of these individuals have committed murder within their own family. so you have a situation where they're coming out of prison and they're going back to surviving family members, some may want to have contact with them, some may feel revictimized by seeing them back out on the street. we have a lot of concerns with how the victims are being treated during this process. >> and they've been in prison 20, 25, 30 years, a lot has changed. >> correct. correct. we're also concerned with public safety and then we have a responsibility to assist the parolee to adjust to life outside of prison. they've been socially isolated
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for such a long time that something simple such as using an atm or knowing how to use a cell phone or knowing how to function in general society are lost on them. >> gary lieberstein, i know you've attended some of these parole hearings with family members, victims and so on. what would you idea to what you heard in the setup piece about whether or not someone is ready to get out? >> i think every case is certainly very different, scott. part of it is being in the moment in front of the parole board and watching the reactions of the person who is seeking parole when family members are speaking. the family members or surviving members by law they're the last person to speak to the parole board. and it's really a gut feeling sometimes because, you know, we heard in the earlier segment about some people are being coached in what to say. and certainly in hearing mr. ward, you know, i feel, listening to him, that he seems to understand. >> he seems authentic.
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>> he seems authentic, but then on the other hand when we hear ms. nevin, this is like yesterday for her. it doesn't matter if 20 years went by, 25, 30 years have gone by. when the case is being discussed again, it's like a blink in time. the reality is when you're watching the inmate speak, are they just saying the words intellectually? are you feeling the emotion that they really do feel sincere remorse for what they did? >> as the d.a., does the d.a. generally just oppose parole automatically or have you been to a parole hearing where you said, you know, i think this person is ready. they're remorseful, they've got insight into what they did and so on? >> i've been to a lot of hearings over the years. i would say that i try to go in some with open minds. some i clearly believe based on everything that i've read, they're not ready. they don't have the insight. i've gone into hear pgz where i thought, you know, it seems like he's close. then i get in the hearing and
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when you start seeing again, they're saying the words but i'm in the getting the feeling. so i would like to tell you i've gone into a hearing and said this person's ready. i haven't been there yet, but -- i mean i was in one this year where this man was extremely elderly. and he wasn't ready. i mean, i think age wise he was, but he had nowhere to go and no one to stay with. >> that brings up a question for you, carla, because to get out on parole, part of the deal i think is you have to have a plan. what are you going to do, who are you going to connect with? do you have family, do you have a job, do you have a hope of getting a job? how does redf answer some of those questions? >> obviously the most critical things you need when you get out are a place to live, reconnection with a network of people, then most fundamentally a job. and there are actually employers that are called social enterprises that are in the business of creating jobs,
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generating revenue in order to bring people who otherwise are going to have a really tough time with your average employer kind of getting a look-see when they first get out. and actually offering them a job and also that kind of team and community and network of support that they need the in order to stay out. >> what kind of jobs are they working in and what kind of jobs would be inappropriate? or does it depend on the former inmate? >> it does depend on the former inmate. but initially, especially for people who have been away a long time, they'll hit an entry level job, front line job. a work crew doing basic cleebup of a park. >> caltans. >> caltrans is providing huge support for these jobs. you can clean litter amadement on the side of roads. there are others, screen printing, logistics, a whole variety of different kinds. >> what kinds of questions do you hear employ pers ask before they make a decision.
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>> there's a variety of concerns that employ pers have. some will be just, you know, that they're in business areas where they just can't hire people who have a record, but the most critical question is can somebody demonstrate that they can work? and as everybody knows when you've had a job, it's much easier to get a job. an employer wants to see a good track record. a manager making that recommendation to them that the individual has worked, has showed up on time, knows how to work on a team, is committed, and what they found is that, particularly people who are coming out when they're more mature, are actually some of the most committed and effective workers that these employers see. >> they probably don't want to go back, that's for sure. you oversee some in eight different countries. some are more you are within ban than others. what's the difference tweep urban and city in terms of what parole is like?
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>> really the difference is to resources. the urban areas have a lot more resources and programming available. the country areas -- and i do have auburn all the way up to lake tahoe -- they tend to be more spread out. there's less services available. the parolees have less opportunity to travel distances where they can get even if there were a program there. so it creates a little bit of a challenge and the resources are a little bit spread out. they're not as available. and just to follow up, a lot of the lifers' specific issues we have, if the average age for a lifer coming out is 55, a lot have aged out of the employment market. much more difficult for them to get a foot in the door. >> the recidivism rate as we heard in the setup piece is very low for lifers who get out, 1%. it depends on what counts as recidivism. another felony i think is what that mean. does that mean rehabilitation is working? >> i think you have to look at who a lot of these folks are. i mean, if they're former gang
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members, that's one thing. but if we're talking about someone who killed their spouse or their ex-spouse or their girlfriend, most of them have no prior record except maybe some domestic violence related to that particular victim and they've spent all these years in prison. and they're saying, now i understand what i did and it will never happen again. and the skepticism, of course, is, well, yeah, unless you get into another relationship. but the reality is generally they are going to be the lowest recidivism. >> you are saying these programs that we saw give them insight and teach them about anger management, they're not really -- that those don't work? >> no, i'm not saying that, scott. i think the program's absolutely essential. if we're truly going to have a department of corrections and rehabilitation, we have to have programs of rehabilitation to have people released from prison. because there's people in society who think based on what they did just put them in cages and treat them like animals. you do that and you open the cage, you'll have an animal
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that's released. the programs are absolutely essential. i'm just saying the triggers that involve -- it's usually direct at one person and they've taken care of that individual. so by nature, they're going to be -- you know, i understand the less likely to resid da vat, but then the question of society is retribution versus rehabilitation. then you come back to the victims and for them, he's going to have fresh air and a new life and they never get to see their loved ones again. it's very complicated, as you can imagine. >> to what extent do parole agents hear from other former inmates, other lifers who say keep an eye on this person. i think he's going to get in trouble? or i don't think that one should have really gotten out? does that thing happen? >> that's not as common as you would think. we're actually on the forefront of trying to get a national program together for lifers where we use mentoring and peer groups to help these individuals
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adjust when they come out. the lifers tend to be isolated when they come out. they don't tend to mix a lot, they don't talk a lot about other parolees, they tend to stick to themselves. some of that social ice olization we were talking about before. but the parole agent should be in touch with both victims and the parolee and their support groups to find out what's going on with those individuals. >> carla, just quickly, some people might hear this and think, well, there are a lot of people out of work, veterans and older folks and kids getting out of school. why are we giving particular help to murderers? >> i would say on two fronts. one, taxpayers, we put a dollar in, we find from studies, you get $3.30 back. people go back, it will cost us a lot of money. we found in these programs reductions of 60% in return to violent crime. >> so kind of an investment. exactly. thank you so much, carla javits, gary lieberstein and marvin
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spieth. thuy, back to you. >> thank you, scott. for more in depth coverage please go to tune in next week for state of surveillance. the center for investigative reporting discover crime fighting technologies that raise concerns about privacy. i'm thuy vu, thanks for watching. have a good night.
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