Recently, California criminal appeals attorney Matthew Barhoma appeared on CourtTV to discuss Governor Newsome’s recent decision not to sign for the release of Leslie Van Houten, despite the parole board’s decision that she should be released on parole. Now 72 years old, Leslie Van Houten was given a life sentence for helping Charles Manson carry out the infamous LaBianca murders back in August 1969. At the time, Van Houten was 19 years old.
In 2020, Van Houten obtained a recommendation from the parole board that she should be released from prison. The board found that she “does not pose an unreasonable risk to public safety” and that she has shown remorse for her actions. However, Governor Newsome refused to sign off on Van Houten’s release, finding that, in his opinion, she posed an unreasonable danger if released. This marks the fifth time the parole board has found Van Houten should be released on parole, and the fifth time the sitting governor reversed the parole board’s decision.
Governors in every state have broad power to grant clemency to an inmate at their discretion. However, California is unique in that it is one of just a few states that allows the governor to reverse a parole board’s decision regarding any inmate who was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole. Attorney Barhoma notes, “Ultimately, the governor is exercising his discretion. I think that he is looking at the criteria quite frankly. There may be public hysteria. She possibly poses a further threat. The way she describes her admiration for Mason maybe really hasn’t changed. So, here are a lot of twists and turns in this.” Here is the interview with Attorney Matthew Barhoma, California Appellate attorney:
Van Houten’s case is an example of the intersection between the power of the parole board and the governor’s office. When the parole board makes a parole decision, it relies on roughly the same considerations the governor does in determining whether to grant executive clemency. These include:
- Prior criminal history,
- Institutional behavior,
- Strength of character,
- Length of incarceration,
- The severity of the underlying crime; and/or
- Mental illness experienced at the time of the offense.
The difference comes from the fact that the parole board is obligated to grant parole if it finds that the “consideration of the public safety requires a more lengthy period of incarceration for this individual.” Penal Code § 3041. However, the governor is under no such obligation and can exercise complete discretion. For example, as Attorney Barhoma notes, “Governor Newsome has put other commutations forward and, for every one of them, there is a certain layer of backlash.”
Thus, to effectively pursue either clemency or parole, an inmate should be prepared. Addressing each of the above factors is essential, especially remorsefulness. However, this alone may be insufficient to persuade the governor, who strongly considers other factors such as what an inmate has done while in prison to rehabilitative themselves into a productive member of society as well as what they plan to do when they are released.
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