California lawmakers look to free older and younger inmates

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - To ease overcrowding in state prisons, California lawmakers want to release more of the state's older prisoners and more of the inmates who were young when they committed their crimes.

The two bills sent to Gov. Jerry Brown in the waning days of the legislative session are the latest attempt to keep the prison population below the cap set by federal judges, with the goal of eventually ending federal oversight.

One requires parole officials to consider whether "age, time served and diminished physical condition" reduced the risk for future violence by older inmates. And the other mandates officials consider whether young people fully understood their actions and if their lack of maturity allowed for a greater chance of rehabilitation.

The measures follow voter-approved early-release efforts in recent years that have reduced penalties for drug and property crimes and, most recently, allowed more sentencing credits that can lead to earlier releases for inmates who complete rehabilitation programs.

Law enforcement agencies and victims' organizations say the efforts put hardened criminals on the streets and create safety issues for communities. They point to rising crime rates following the earlier initiatives as evidence that once out from behind bars many convicts return to their criminal ways.

"At some point you have to ask, when it is it going to stop?" said California District Attorneys Association legislative director Sean Hoffman.

Supporters of the measures emphasize they do not guarantee parole for anyone and say it makes sense to target the young and old as lawmakers try to unwind decades of get-tough policies that led to unprecedented prison crowding. Many older inmates have health issues that make them extremely costly to house.

"There's no point of incarcerating someone who's at the point of death," said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego.

Weber's bill would write into law a 2014 federal court order that requires California to consider releasing inmates age 60 or older who have served at least 25 years. Death row and other no-parole inmates were excluded by the judges, and her bill further excludes cop killers and third-strike career criminals.

Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, mocked the bill when it was debated in the Senate.

"Why not Charles Manson? For heaven's sake, he's done a lot of time, he's really suffered. Poor guy," Nielsen said.

The 82-year-old Manson, leader of the murderous Manson "family," is among more than 200 octogenarian prisoners. He's not up for parole until 2027 and should he make to then it's extremely unlikely his age will prompt officials to free him.

California has six inmates are 90 or older and the oldest of all is 101-year-old child molester Joseph Mannina, serving a life sentence with the chance of parole.

At the other end of the age spectrum, lawmakers approved a bill expanding the state's youthful parole program. State law already requires that inmates who were under 23 when they committed their crimes be considered for parole after serving at least 15 years. AB1308 raises the age to 25.

The age for such consideration was 18 when lawmakers passed the first youth offender parole law in 2012.

"That gap in the middle is shrinking, it seems, every year," Hoffman said.

Paroling younger inmates is more concerning to law enforcement than freeing older criminals, he said, because they are more likely to be healthy enough to commit new crimes. Statistics show less than one-third of California inmates paroled when they were 60 or older were back behind bars within three years compared to more than 50 percent of those 18-24.

There are about 131,500 inmates in the California prison system, nearly 11 percent of whom are 18-24 and 7 percent are 60 and up.

In the last three years about 2,000 inmates over 60 and 900 under 23 when they committed their crimes have been recommended for release, or about one-quarter of all those considered.

Legislative analysts say extending the age to 25 would mean about another 170 parole hearings each year. There would likely be a slight decrease in the roughly 160 elderly inmates granted parole each year because of the narrower eligibility in Weber's bill compared to the federal court order. Her office projects that about 2,300 older inmates would qualify for consideration.

Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, said people who were young when they committed crimes deserve a second chance.

"Certain areas of the brain, particularly those affecting judgment and decision-making, do not develop until their early to mid-20s," he said, adding that, "To say that young people aren't salvageable is a crime in and of itself."

Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance, rejected that reasoning.

"To my mind it's ridiculous to say a 24- or 25-year-old doesn't know the difference between right and wrong," she said.