Here's the way parole works in California.
Kuldip Kler is found guilty of second-degree murder in 1989 and sentenced to 15 years to life. He commits two minor disciplinary offenses during his early years in prison but is otherwise a model prisoner. Even though he's a Sikh and there are no programs for his religion in prison, he takes forty-plus religion and bible study classes, and does a massive number of self-help and counseling programs; e.g., 75 (!) between 2005 and 2007. And I know it's a stereotype, but he also does incredibly good ceramics work as a prisoner. Which he then donates to the San Joaquin County Child Abuse Prevention Council, which raised over $15,000 selling them.
Kler has consistently admitted his guilt since 1997. Every single mental health evaluation says he's got an incredibly small chance of reoffending. His evaluation also says he "has a strong support system of family and friends, which give him an excellent chance of success."
In short, he's an outstanding candidate for release when he comes up for parole in 2007, having at that point spent 18 years in prison on a sentence of 15 to life.
But here's the rub. The murder he committed was of a 10-month old. His daughter. Who he brutally hit to death in a fit of rage when she began crying at 3:00 a.m.
No way the Parole Board's going to grant parole to someone like that. Model prisoner or no. The sentence may formally say 15 to life. But based solely on the crime itself, no way he's getting let out at the early stage of being eligible. So, predictably, the Parole Board denies parole notwithstanding all the totally favorable facts and the extremely low likelihood of future violence.
At which point, in 2009, Kler files a habeas petition, and the Court of Appeal reverses the denial of parole, remanding the case back to the Parole Board in an opinion that clearly and unambiguously reflects the Court of Appeal's sense that Kler should get parole.
The Parole Board gets the message, and in September 2009 -- Kler's now been in prison for 20 years -- grants parole.
Which Governor Schwarzenegger promptly -- and entirely predictably -- reverses. Relying again on the facts of the underlying offense and Kler's alleged "lack of insight" into his offense to reject the Board's decision.
This is, as we all know, an utter crock. Like Governor Davis before him, Ahnold simply doesn't want to grant parole to murderers. Law and standards be dammed. It's bad politics. It's bad business. There's no upside to it, except (of course) to the offender. So the Governor's Office puts down the block.
Placing the ball right back in the Court of Appeal's court when Kler files the also-predictable habeas petition to challenge the Governor's reversal. Which the Court of Appeal promptly takes up, reversing the Governor's decision. So Kler gets out. But it's several years later, and the "responsibility" of the judiciary, not an elected politician.
In short, exactly what you'd expect to happen. Sadly.
There's one other twist in this one that makes it especially worthy of reading, and that adds a doctrinal piece as well. But this post is already long enough. I'll save that one for a rare Part II.