SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown last year approved the release of 477 inmates serving indeterminate life sentences, the second-highest total in state history.
The number of grants of parole was surpassed only by 670 the year before.
The release of life-term inmates found suitable for parole has skyrocketed in recent years, in the wake of two state Supreme Court decisions in 2008 that held state officials must base their decisions on an inmate’s current condition, rather than simply reject parole requests based solely on the circumstances of his or her crime.
Details of the grants of parole issued by the Board of Parole Hearings were released late last week by the governor’s office, in a required annual report to the Legislature. The governor rejected 100 of 577 the board submitted for approval.
Brown’s rate of reversals, 17.3 percent, was consistent with that compiled over his first two years in office, a combined 18 percent. That rate is far lower than that of his predecessor, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who reversed 60 percent of parole grants.
But Brown administration officials note the net percentage of paroles has been largely unchanged, because courts later overturned about three of every four of Schwarzenegger’s reversals.
California is one of just four states in which the ultimate decisions on paroles for life-term inmates rests with the governor.
The effect of the Supreme Court decisions has been dramatic. Since 2008, there have been 3,039 grants of parole to life-term inmates. Over the previous 30 years combined, there had been 1,821.
Even with those climbing numbers of paroles, however, the process remains very selective. About 85 percent of parole hearings still end in denial. Most of those eligible for parole have been convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to prison terms of 20 years to life.
There are about 35,000 such inmates in California prisons, including about 450 from Ventura County.
The parole board scheduled hearings for 58 of those inmates from Ventura County last year and granted parole to nine.
Among the 100 parole grants reversed by Brown last year was one from Ventura County, that of Louis Gary. He strangled to death Najat Chehade, a prostitute and live-in friend.
Gary had been giving her a ride from Los Angeles to Ojai. During the drive, they argued about what route to take, and Chehade began to mock Gary about his sexual dysfunction. Gary pulled off the freeway, strangled her with a piece of rope and pushed her body down an embankment.
In his decision, Brown called Gary’s crime “vicious and senseless.” He noted that Gary was 41, highly educated and had a career as a computer systems designer. “It gives me great pause that a person of such intelligence and success would decide to murder his friend for such a trivial reason,” Brown wrote.
Brown cited a 2009 report from a prison psychologist that said Gary “appeared to minimize” his history of mental health problems.
“Mr. Gary’s failure to acknowledge these issues indicates to me that he is not prepared to recognize and cope with them promptly if they re-emerge,” he wrote.