The Sister

The Sister and the Lifers – Father Greg Boyle famously reaches out to gangbangers. Few know Sister Mary Sean Hodges, but her ministry is just as critical—helping men sentenced to life terms reenter the world, Los Angeles Magazine, by Miles Corwin (February 2, 2017)

“With its three-strikes law and draconian parole system—one of four states where the governor has final authority on parole decisions—California had long been a national leader in tough-on-crime policies. Shortly after Gray Davis took office, he announced that “if you take someone else’s life, forget it,” then blocked most of the recommendations for parole that crossed his desk. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approach was less harsh, but he still reversed 70 percent of the parole requests approved by the state board. Jerry Brown, however, has let stand more than 80 percent of the parole board’s decisions, with more lifers released in Los Angeles County due to its size than in any other part of the state. Brown, a former seminarian, has emphasized that redemption is the core of his Catholic faith, and he believes people can change. But the laws have changed as well.

In 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that prisoners could not be denied parole based solely on the viciousness of their crimes. There must be evidence, the court said, that the prisoner continues to be a threat to public safety. Brown was also facing pressure from federal courts to reduce the state’s dangerously overcrowded prisons, and he signed a bill in 2012 that allows some prisoners to petition for resentencing if they had been incarcerated as youths and sentenced to life without parole. That same year voters passed Proposition 36, allowing reduced sentences for three-strikes prisoners serving life sentences for a nonviolent third strike.

Some victim’s rights advocates have decried the changes as a threat to public safety, but a Stanford study found that of 860 murderers paroled between 1990 and 2010 who were tracked by the university, only 5 committed new crimes and none were convicted of murder. Criminologists attribute this partly to the average age—the mid-fifties—of the lifers being released.

“We know that many prisoners age out of crime,” says Christine Scott-Hayward, assistant professor of criminology at Cal State Long Beach. “There’s an age-crime curve. It’s not that older people don’t commit crimes, but they commit far fewer. The peak age in the crime curve is the twenties and the early thirties. When you’ve served an extensive amount of time in prison and then get out, you’re no longer as great a risk to society. Parole officers have said some of the easiest people to supervise are ex-lifers who committed a murder. In some of the cases it was a one-off, and the circumstances that led to the murder have changed.”

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