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Gov. Jerry Brown is allowing murderers to be paroled from California prisons at a far greater pace than his immediate predecessors, a development that raised alarm Wednesday with victims' rights groups.
After a little more than one year in office, the Democratic governor has allowed about 80 percent of the decisions by the state Board of Parole Hearings to free convicted killers.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, allowed about a quarter of the recommended paroles to stand, while former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, allowed just 2 percent.
Crime Victims Action Alliance, a Sacramento-based group that assists victims and lobbies for their rights, said the Democratic governor's decisions put 331 murderers back on the street.
"It's a huge jump,'' said Christine Ward, the group's executive director. ``We're talking about some of the most dangerous criminals that were put in prison for a very long time for a very good reason. That number is just very concerning to us.''
The group's concern was prompted by a report on parole decisions the governor's office sent Tuesday to the state Legislature. The report is required each year.
The governor considers public safety, the opinions of law enforcement experts on the parole board, and recent legal rulings in making his decisions, said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor's office.
He said the state's ongoing budget deficit and a federal court order to reduce the inmate population by 33,000 by June 2013 do not enter the equation, noting that the freed murderers are a tiny fraction of the state's 144,000 inmates.
"The governor has a duty to respect the law but also to uphold public safety,'' Westrup said. "We think he's struck a balance with these decisions.''
In a pair of rulings in 2008, the state Supreme Court held that governors who want to block paroles must show some evidence that a criminal serving a life prison term remains a danger to society and should not be released. It's not enough to consider only the nature of the original crime in making that decision, the court ruled.
The court gave the governor some discretion to block paroles for inmates who have not taken responsibility for their crimes.
"When previous governors have flouted the law, their decisions have been routinely overturned,'' Westrup said.
Last year alone, judges reversed nearly three-quarters of the 144 Schwarzenegger parole denials they considered, meaning those criminals will be released despite the former governor's attempt to keep them behind bars, he said.
Ward said she fears the parole board, the governor and the courts are interpreting that standard too broadly.
She referred to disciples of 1960s cult murderer Charles Manson.
"They committed heinous crimes, yet some of the members of that clan, their behavior has been exemplary in prison,'' she said. ``If that's the standard we have to go through then we're eventually going to see some individuals convicted of committing the most heinous crimes imaginable being released from prison.''
Westrup said there is little danger that those freed will kill again.
He cited a Stanford Law School study last year on 860 murderers who were paroled in California since 1995. Just five were sent back to prison for new crimes, and none was convicted of killing again.
Brown reviewed parole recommendations for 405 murderers last year. He reversed 71, modified one and sent two back to the full board to reconsider.
"It just seems like he wants to open the doors and let everyone out,'' said Harriet Salarno, founder and chairwoman of Auburn-based Crime Victims United of California.
"The magnitude of the crime should be considered,'' said Salarno. ``Just because they're in prison and behave doesn't mean they can conform to the outside world.''
Schwarzenegger received 1,909 recommendations for parole during his seven years in office. He reversed 1,163, modified nine, affirmed four, allowed 496 to proceed without a review, and sent 237 back for the full board to consider.
Davis received 374 parole recommendations, reversed 275, affirmed six, modified three, and sent 90 back to the full board during his nearly five years as governor.
Ward said the governor's office has declined to release files on the 331 killers whose parole was permitted by Brown, and Westrup said there is no list of those freed during Brown's tenure. A spokesman for the parole board also could not provide a list.
In a separate report to the Legislature, Brown said he issued 21 pardons last year to ex-convicts who have committed no new crimes since they were released from prison after serving their full sentences years ago. All were convicted of drug or property crimes.