Monday, July 14, 2008

Rehabilitation...parole...merely an empty promise?

Sandra Davis Lawrence is grateful for the simple things she can do now, like pick up her grandniece from school. And she is anxious to make up for lost time, to find a career and start earning money again.

Lawrence spent 24 years in state prison for murdering her lover's wife with a gun and a potato peeler while in a jealous rage. A model inmate, she received a second chance at freedom last summer when a court ordered her released. Since then, she has reunited with family in Los Angeles and tried to re-integrate into society at age 61.[...]

But Lawrence may have to return to prison instead, if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can convince the California Supreme Court that she remains a threat to public safety. That she has had no problems with the law in a year of freedom is irrelevant, the governor's office said; she should not have been let out.

The court is poised in coming weeks to seal Lawrence's fate, along with that of nine other convicted murderers seeking freedom. The justices are expected to answer some difficult questions: When should a killer be set free? What are the limits, if any, on the governor's power to decide? Are such factors as an inmate's prison record and age ever more significant than a horrendous crime committed decades ago?

The state parole board had approved Lawrence's release four times since 1993, but three governors vetoed those decisions. Schwarzenegger blocked Lawrence's release twice before judges on the state Court of Appeal reversed him.[...]

While she was in prison, Lawrence earned two degrees, learned trades that included plumbing and data-processing, was president of the inmates' Toastmasters Club, worked as a library porter and tennis coach, co-founded a tutoring program and remained discipline-free. She apologized profusely for her crime.

The state sets up a false promise, Lawrence says. It encourages inmates to improve themselves to earn their release, then refuses to let them go.

"I was pretty successful by their standards, inside, notwithstanding the crime itself," she said. "They were talking rehabilitation. The system was talking rehabilitation. Here's a person who's rehabilitated. Now what?"

Increasingly, inmates fighting a parole process they believe is driven by tough-on-crime politics have filed petitions in court, successfully challenging the state's refusal to release them. Lawrence was one of them.

In at least 28 cases since late 2005, including hers, judges have overturned Schwarzenegger's parole denials for inmates who appeared to have reformed or who seemed too sick or elderly to pose a serious threat anymore. Some remain in prison pending appeals.

"This is an extremely high reversal rate," said Rich Pfeiffer, an Orange County attorney who represents such inmates. "It was so completely unfair, the courts finally had to do something. The governor can basically resentence these inmates to life without possibility of parole." [...]

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