Parole board to set minimums for life-term prisoners
Corrections officials agree to the change in a settlement in the case of a convicted killer who said he was unjustifiably denied parole. Up to 35,000 inmates could be affected.
SACRAMENTO — State corrections officials agreed Monday to a major change in California's parole system that could lead to earlier releases for convicted killers and other inmates sentenced to a maximum of life in prison but who are still eligible for parole.
The settlement stems from a legal action filed by an inmate at the prison in Soledad, who was sentenced to 15 years to life for a 1987 murder and claimed that his application for parole was routinely and unjustifiably denied for 10 years.
"For decades, the Board of Parole Hearings has left these guys completely in the dark as to when they might ever have a chance of getting out," said Jon Streeter, the court-appointed attorney for the prisoner whose case prompted the unexpected settlement.
Under the settlement, approved Monday by state Court of Appeal Justice J. Anthony Kline in San Francisco, the state Board of Parole Hearings is required to establish the minimum time that should be served before an inmate is released.
Those sentences are to be based on the circumstances of the crime, so that killers convicted of torture, for instance, would draw the longest terms.
For inmates to be held beyond that minimum sentence, a parole board would have to demonstrate why they are a danger to the public.
Until now, parole commissioners waited until after prisoners were found suitable for release before calculating a minimum sentence. By then, many inmates had overstayed the minimum sentence for the circumstances of their crime.
The policy change could affect the time served of nearly 35,000 inmates — one out of four of those in California's crowded prisons — who received maximum life sentences with the possibility of parole. Those included killers, kidnappers and 8,800 third-strike felons.
"It is a remarkable settlement," said Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg, whose own research documented remarkably low crime rates by those life-sentence inmates who have been released.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not immediately comment on the settlement. It is signed by parole board Executive Officer Jennifer Shaffer.
Advocates for crime victims and their families were unsure Monday how the policy change might play out. They already are concerned that Gov. Jerry Brown and his appointed parole commissioners allow far more prisoners facing sentences up to life to be paroled than did previous governors. Since January, Brown has allowed 454 convicted killers to be paroled.
"Our biggest concern is that those people coming back into our communities are safe to do so," said Christine Ward, executive director for the Sacramento-based Crime Victims Action Alliance. "We want to make sure in every decision the parole board makes and every decision the governor allows to go forward, that these individuals are safe and they will not create another victim."
The state appellate judge who signed Monday's settlement had questioned the constitutionality of California's long prison stays in a separate case last year and, in that ruling, provided the legal road map for the case that led to the settlement.
Kline was the governor's legal advisor in 1977, when Brown signed the determinate sentencing law, which sets fixed-length sentences for most crimes but left so-called term-to-life penalties in place for murder.
The settlement requires the state to begin crafting new policies "as soon as is practicable," but does not take full effect until Kline decides the appeal of the man who filed the case, a 46-year-old prisoner who has been refused parole five times.
Roy Butler was convicted in the 1987 stabbing death of a man who regularly and severely beat a friend, court records show. Butler at first arranged an attack on the man to stop the abuse of the woman.
While the man sought treatment for those injuries, Butler and a friend decided the abuser should die. His accomplice stabbed the man as he walked into his apartment, while Butler, who panicked, hid in the bathroom with a knife.
He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison and had his first parole hearing in 1998.
Although Butler had no history of violence or drug use, parole boards repeatedly refused to release him. In 2012, commissioners dwelt on unsatisfactory post-release plans, and whether he showed enough insight into his crime.
"I'm sure you recognize it, but I would have liked not only for you to recognize it … but to articulate it," one commissioner said, according to the parole hearing transcript.
Butler's lawyers calculate that he should have been given a minimum term of 16 to 18 years, but that minimum term was never set by the parole board.
A 2011 Stanford study found that killers who are eligible for parole at 16 years because of credits for good behavior served an average of 27 years behind bars.
Snowden to Brazil: Swap you spying help for asylum
by Kim Hjelmgaard
Edward Snowden has written an "open letter to the people of Brazil" offering to assist Brazil's government investigate allegations of U.S. spying, but on the condition that he be granted permanent political asylum.
The letter was first published Tuesday in Brazil's Folha newspaper.
"I've expressed my willingness to assist where it's appropriate and legal, but, unfortunately, the U.S. government has been working hard to limit my ability to do so," the letter says.
The letter was first made available on the newspaper's website in Portuguese. USA TODAY read a version of the letter using online translation software. It was subsequently posted on Facebook by an account apparently belonging to David Miranda, the partner of former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, the Brazil-based American journalist who was the recipient of thousands of documents detailing the National Security Agency's spying programs.
It was not entirely clear from the letter whether Snowden was suggesting that the South American nation should grant him asylum in return for help in probing claims that the U.S. has spied on Brazil.
"Until a country grants me permanent political asylum, the U.S. government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak out," Snowden writes in the letter.
He says that, "Many Brazilian senators agree and asked me to help their investigations into suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens."
In response to a tweet Tuesday, Greenwald told USA TODAY that "if media outlets want to report what they think is the "sub-text," that's fine — but they should report its actual content." Earlier, Greenwald characterized many media summaries of the letter to Brazil as "wrong."
On Monday. Snowden said he felt vindicated by a federal judge's ruling that the collection of data by the National Security Agency was most likely unconstitutional.
"Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans' rights. It is the first of many," the former NSA contractor said in a statement.
NORAD: tracking Santa for 59 years
The unusual tradition of NORAD - usually tasked with defending US airspace - hosting a website to track Santa Claus can be dated back to a happy accident in 1955
by Matthew Sparkes
For most of the year NORAD is tasked with defending airspace around the US and Canada from missiles and incursions by foreign air forces, but each December it also pours a huge amount of resources into entertaining children around the world by tracking Santa Claus as he delivers presents.
The unusual tradition dates back to 1955, when a Sears department store offered children the chance to talk directly to Santa in an advert. It said: “Hey, Kiddies! Call me direct and be sure and dial the correct number.”
Unfortunately, they hadn't demonstrated the same attention to detail that they were demanding of children and had accidentally printed the phone number for the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead of their own office. Instead of getting through to an actor, ready with a gruff laugh and some scripted patter, they ended up on the line to a military base. Once he realised what had happened, Colonel Harry Shoup - who came to be known as the “Santa Colonel” - quickly told his staff to answer the calls with an update on Santa's current position.
NORAD replaced CONAD a few years later, but the tradition remained and continues to this day.
Volunteers staff call centres on Christmas Eve and field around 70,000 phone calls each year from 200 countries. Last year the first lady, Michelle Obama, lent a hand and spoke to children from around a dozen families.