I was listening to the most recent This American Life about long shots. It was explained that in California, when prisoners who are committed for life eligible for parole are deemed by the parole board to be safe for release, the governor has the right to review their cases. Presently Schwarzenegger turns down 75% of these, and the previous governor turned down 99%.
What I found really shocking though was the opinion expressed by the judge who advised the governor between 2003 and 2005, Justice Peter Siggins. When it was suggested that these decisions were not made on merits but were rather based on political criteria (ie the potential embarrassment if a governor released someone who then went on to commit a crime). He said:
Part of a governor’s job is to be responsive to the constituents who elected him. The fact that the governor would think that a lot of people would be upset that this person got out of prison… it is the governor paying attention to the preference of a large constituency in California.
So essentially, yes – whether a prisoner is released depends not on whether an extensive examination of his character and conduct suggests he would be a risk to the public but whether the public (who knows nothing of him save his crime) would be happy for him to be released. How can a judge think this is right?