Politicians Have No Place Making Parole Decisions for Young People

In a new lawsuit, we argue that the California governor’s power to veto parole grants violates the rights of young people.

Allison Frankel, Equal Justice Works Fellow, ACLU Human Rights Program and Criminal Law Reform Project

Avi Frey, Criminal Justice Program Deputy Director, ACLU of Northern California

For nearly two decades, courts and legislatures have been rolling back the damage wrought by the “superpredator” myth of the 1990s — the racist notion that young people who commit crimes, especially young people of color, will be a menace to society for their entire lives. This devastating ideology sent too many children to prison for too long, but in a series of modern decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court turned the tide. Recognizing that young people are immature, impulsive, and vulnerable to peer pressure — and that they outgrow these traits with time — the court decreed that young people deserve a second chance at freedom, even if they’ve done terrible things. In the language of the court, young people have the right to a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

States across the country have taken heed, bolstering opportunities for young people sentenced to lengthy prison terms to receive earlier, and better, chances for release on parole. But California imposes a daunting obstacle to such second chances: the governor’s power to single-handedly reverse a decision of the parole board in homicide cases. California is a shameful outlier in this respect. It is one of just two states (Oklahoma being the other) that allows the governor to veto parole grants. Maryland recently abolished the practice, because, as one former governor put it, “How can it not be political for a governor to hold all the power” in parole decisions?

Indeed, politics is baked into the reversal power in California. Following widespread outcry over a controversial parole grant in the 1980s, California’s then-governor pushed a ballot initiative authorizing him to block the parole board’s release decisions. Unsurprisingly, governors regularly exercise this power in high-profile, politically toxic cases, like those of the Manson family members or 77-year-old Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of killing Robert Kennedy, despite the fact that these people are now elderly and have near-spotless records over decades in prison. But governors also frequently reverse in less infamous cases for fear of political retribution.

Consider the cases of our clients. For example, Joseph Pagaduan was abused by his parents throughout his childhood and, at the age of 18, killed them in a spontaneous and emotionally charged incident. Now in his 40s, Joey has built an exceptional record of his rehabilitation, including by pursuing collegiate education, working as a substance abuse counselor, editing the prison newspaper, participating in a therapeutic acting workshop, learning a variety of trades, and excelling in his work assignments and programming. The parole board rightly awarded Joey a second chance at freedom, finding that he posed no present danger, but the governor reversed the board’s decision absent any evidence to the contrary.

David Adkins’ case presents the same issue. Abandoned, abused, and neglected as a young child, David found solace in drugs, alcohol, and an older peer group. At the age of 16, while heavily intoxicated, he and a peer tragically shot and killed three friends in a heated altercation. That was 32 years ago, and since then, David has turned his life around. He has been sober and misconduct-free for 20 years. And he has pursued virtually every program, class, or work assignment available to him. Yet when the parole board granted him release, the governor reversed, requiring him to remain in prison despite his obvious rehabilitation.

Last week, the ACLU and ACLU of Northern California filed a lawsuit on behalf of Joey, David, and others alleging that the California governor’s power to veto parole grants violates the rights of young people to a “meaningful opportunity for release.” There is simply an unacceptably high risk that parole reversals are grounded in a governor’s political calculations, rather than public safety. That’s why we have asked the courts to abolish the governor’s veto power over the parole board in the cases of young people.

As our clients prove, children are so much more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. Their redemption must be recognized and not reduced to a matter of politics. Anything less would deprive them of their right to return home as mature, responsible community members.