SAN DIEGO -- For his first 19 years in prison, Stephen Anderson had been anything but a model prisoner.
Convicted in 1988 of first-degree murder for shooting to death Jackie Bewley as she ran from his van following an argument in an Oxnard parking lot, Anderson was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison. He was 25 years old.
In January 2007, at age 44, he got his first shot at trying to get paroled. It did not go well.
Behind bars, he had received 16 serious disciplinary citations, nine involving the use of illegal drugs. In 2006, he avoided being charged with conspiracy to smuggle drugs into prison only because his mother flatly rejected his proposed scheme.
When he appeared before the Board of Parole Hearings inside Corcoran State Prison, he received a lecture from Commissioner Philip Inglee: "You are never going to get out of prison the way you are doing things. You need to get a hold of yourself and straighten up your act."
After his parole was denied, Anderson rejoined 35,250 inmates in California prisons serving life terms with the possibility of parole, including 458 from Ventura County as of March.
Even had Anderson's disciplinary record been clean, the fact is that in 2007, he stood a very slim chance of being paroled. The denial rate among scheduled parole hearings that year was 98 percent.
But by the time Anderson had his second hearing more than six years later, the legal landscape of the life-term parole process had dramatically changed. More so than ever before, he stood a legitimate chance of being released -- if he in fact did "straighten up his act."
Because of two Supreme Court decisions in 2008, record numbers of life-term inmates are being granted parole after undergoing intensive hearings in which they are found to be suitable for parole.
Since those rulings, there have been 2,462 grants of parole to life-term inmates. Over the previous 30 years combined, there had been 1,821. Last year alone, 670 such inmates were granted parole, a record.
Even with those climbing numbers of paroles, however, the process remains very selective. About 85 percent of parole hearings still end in denial.
The rate of parole grants made by the Board of Parole Hearings tells only part of the story.
California is one of just four states that gives its governor ultimate authority over parole decisions, and modern governors have freely exercised their authority to reverse grants of parole to convicted murderers.
During his tenure, then-Gov. Gray Davis virtually eliminated the possibility of parole. Davis vowed that no murderer would ever be set free under his watch. He relented only slightly, and reversed all but 9 of the 371 parole grants he reviewed.
Through his actions, Davis virtually nullified existing law, since the law states that those whose sentences include a possibility of parole "shall normally" be eventually granted one. Davis' hard stance triggered the first of a series of game-changing California Supreme Court decisions.
The high court ruled in 2002 that judges could review parole decisions to make certain they were based on "some evidence." That was followed in 2008 by two decisions that delineated what that evidence must be -- basically, "the current dangerousness" of an inmate.
That meant the governor and his appointees could no longer simply cite the circumstances of the crime -- circumstances which will never change -- as the sole grounds for denying parole.
Of the 35,250 life-term inmates, most have been convicted of either first- or second-degree murder. They make up more than a quarter of the population of California's overcrowded prisons, the highest percentage of any state.
They are distinct from the about 4,000 inmates serving life terms without the possibility of parole -- a sentence, along with the death penalty, reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes.
The new landscape presents a political challenge for any governor. He or she must abide by the new current-circumstances standard or risk having decisions overturned by the courts. At the same time, each decision comes with underlying political peril -- a paroled murderer who kills again would result not only in human tragedy but also create a damaging political issue.
During the first two years of his term, Gov. Jerry Brown allowed 971 grants of parole to stand and reversed 162. An administration official who works on the team that reviews grants of parole said Brown is committed to following the law, but his first priority is protecting public safety.
The governor's parole workload has become significant. He must act upon a grant of parole within 30 days of receipt, and in 2012 he had to deal with an average of more than a dozen a week. Brown personally reviews each one, typically meeting once a week with his staff to do so, said the official, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used because he is not authorized to publicly speak for the administration.
Brown has allowed far more grants of parole to stand than did his predecessor, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who reversed about 60 percent of those that came to him.
The net effect on the number of releases, however, has not much changed, said Brown spokesman Evan Westrup.
"When Gov. Schwarzenegger's decisions blocking parole were challenged in court, they were overturned three out of four times," Westrup said. "The rate of reversal may vary between administrations, but the results have been the same: when an individual is no longer a threat to public safety, they are paroled."
Advocates on both sides of the issue have taken note of how things have altered.
Vanessa Nelson-Sloane, co-founder of a group called the Life Support Alliance, said her group has a simple objective.
"All we're asking is that they comply with the law," she said. "If those guys aren't complying with the law, then what are they asking of the prisoners? What we are saying is that vengeance isn't public policy."
Nelson-Sloane notes that many who are generally opposed to parole always cite the example of Charles Manson as evidence that murderers should never be released. On their narrow point, she agrees.
"I accept the fact that there are people who should never be released. Charles Manson is the poster child for that," she said. She believes there are a great many others who fall into that category, many of whom are severely mentally ill.
Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance, said her group is concerned that "the Supreme Court decisions are being interpreted differently than under prior administrations. The significant increase in the grant rate and the release rate is a concern."
The two alliances closely monitor decisions of the Board of Parole Hearings, even to the point of keeping score cards on the decisions of individual commissioners and testifying for or against them at their Senate confirmation hearings.
"Our main concern is that if a lifer is going to be paroled into our community everything has been triple-checked to ensure that no harm is going to come to anybody," Ward said. "If they can guarantee that, we're comfortable."
County prosecutors have also responded to higher release rates. Ventura County Chief Deputy District Attorney Chuck Hughes says his office now sends a prosecutor "in almost all cases" to a parole hearing when someone convicted in the county is being considered for release.
"We weren't attending as many meetings when grants were fewer," he said.
Hughes said he doesn't believe that in recent years his office has ever supported a release, but doesn't rule out that possibility. "You can't say a sentence is life with parole if parole is impossible. There are appropriate cases."
Among those who were granted parole this year is Donald Culbertson, 41, released in April after having served 18 years and seven months in prison.
Culbertson was 22 and drunk in the spring of 1994 when he got into a pre-dawn argument with his sister's boyfriend while staying at her Oxnard apartment. He grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed David Rubio. Alarmed at what had happened, he called 911. When police arrived, Culbertson told them, "I did it, I did it. I didn't mean to hurt him." But by then the tragic outcome had unfolded: Rubio was dead, and Culbertson was convicted of second-degree murder.
At his parole hearing in January, it was evident to commissioners that Culbertson had evolved into someone who no longer posed a threat to public safety. A Channel Islands High School dropout, he received his high school equivalency diploma and completed 43 units of community college classes while in prison. He also was active in Alcoholics Anonymous and had taken classes in anger management.
In addition, he worked as the inmate employment coordinator in Prison Industry Association program at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad and had received exceptional work reviews and favorable recommendations from numerous corrections officers and supervisors.
Interviewed last month at the Northern California transition home at which he is staying, Culbertson was thrilled to report that he had just been hired by a construction firm at a wage of $12.50 an hour.
"I'm getting back into society great. It's a beautiful thing," he said. "I've been preparing myself for a long time. I changed inside of prison; I gained a lot of life skills."
Based not only on his personal growth and a psychiatric evaluation that rated him as a low risk of future violent behavior, but also on statistics, Culbertson is not likely to commit another crime.
A report released last year by Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation analyzing recidivism rates for six years back to 2008 shows that the overall rate of return to prison of all inmates after release was 64 percent. The rate among those who had been convicted of first- or second-degree murder was less than 10 percent. Those figures include parolees returned to prison for violations of parole -- the most common reason -- as well as those convicted of new crimes.
More recent Board of Parole Hearings data from 2012, shows that of 784 California inmates on parole after being sentenced to a life term for murder, only 5 percent returned to prison last year for parole violations. The Department of Corrections did not immediately have data available on the number who may have been returned for commission of a new crime.
A key difference is that while those who commit other felonies are automatically released at the end of their sentence, those with life terms undergo extensive scrutiny before they can be found suitable for release. In addition, they are put under supervised parole for at least five years after they are released, and sometimes for the rest of their lives.
The decisions are made by 12 parole commissioners, each appointed by the governor, along with a corps of about 70 deputy commissioners who are civil service employees. Nearly every day in prisons across California, one commissioner and one deputy commissioner jointly conduct hearings lasting four hours or more to determine an inmate's suitability.
Jennifer Shaffer, executive officer of the Board of Parole Hearings, said commissioners are trained on the law and given one overarching objective: "Apply the law to the facts and render a decision that can withstand judicial scrutiny."
Although California is under a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce its prison population, Shaffer said commissioners do not consider such outside factors. Blocking them out, she said, "is easier than most people think. The external stuff, I don't think that impacts them. These are very, very difficult, high-stakes decisions."
Stephen Anderson, the inmate who was told to "straighten up your act" at his initial parole hearing in 2007, got another shot at parole during a hearing two months ago at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, where he is now housed.
Now 50, Anderson told the board that he was a changed man -- and that his denial of parole six years earlier had been the turning point. That decision had so depressed him, he said, that he became suicidal and was placed in "the shoe," a solitary confinement cell.
"It wound up to be a blessing from God," he told commissioners. "The true reality of everything finally took hold. My belief system was so warped and twisted. I was an idiot."
He stopped taking drugs and received no further disciplinary citations. He availed himself of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and other self-help programs. He connected with a group called Prisoners Abroad in London and made plans to return to Scotland, where he had spent the first few years of his boyhood.
The Board of Parole Hearings commended Anderson on his progress, but was not persuaded he was suitable for release. It rejected his parole request, and recommended that he continue to remain disciplinary-free and participate in self-help programs. The panel rescheduled another hearing in three years, with the strong possibility that it could be moved up to next year.
"You do still pose an unreasonable risk to society," Commissioner Amarik Singh told him. ___
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