Governor Brown Shifts Parole Policies of Predecessors, But Not in Yolo


prison-reformBee Editorial Calls on California to Reconsider Proposition 89, Requiring Governor Approval of Parole Decisions –

The Sacramento Bee reported earlier this week that Governor Brown is allowing that “convicted killers leave prison on parole at a far higher rate than previous governors, only rarely using his power to block decisions of the parole board.”

According to the paper’s research, Governor Brown has allowed 106 of 130 convicted killers’ parole releases to stand, which is about 82 percent.  Compare that to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who let stand only 27 percent of parole decisions, and Governor Gray Davis who only allowed 9 of 374 (about 2.5%) paroled killers to be released from prison while he was governor.


According to the Bee, “A spokeswoman said Thursday that Brown is basing his parole decisions on public safety concerns and a 2008 State Supreme Court ruling that a governor may not deny parole based solely on the gravity of a prisoner’s crime, but requires some evidence that he or she remains dangerous.”

One glaring exception occurred just two weeks ago in Yolo County as the governor reversed the State Board of Parole Hearing’s parole recommendation for Christopher Michael Fowler, who killed a 22-month-old baby back in 1983.  The governor called Mr. Fowler’s lack of remorse “a danger to society.”

The baby’s grandmother told the Enterprise, “He doesn’t seem to be upset about murdereing that baby.  I think the governor realized that people don’t think he’s changed that much.”
The Governor issued the statement, “The utter inhumanity of Mr. Fowler’s crime coupled with his inability or unwillingness to understand, own, or achieve some credible level of insight tells me that there is a substantial risk of danger to the public were he to be released from prison.”

According to the DA’s office, on November 1, 1983, Fowler killed 22-month-old Aaron Miller of Woodland.

At the time of the murder, Fowler was watching Aaron for his girlfriend, the child’s mother. Fowler became upset with Aaron when he would not stop crying while Fowler attempted to sleep. Fowler entered Aaron’s room and struck him in the head, shook him, and threw him to the ground, all in front of his 3-year old sister.

When the grandmother, a nurse, arrived, Fowler attempted to prevent her from taking Aaron to the hospital. Aaron died two days later as a result of his injuries.

The State Board of Parole Hearings recommended a parole for Fowler in the latter part of 2010.  Several people offered Mr. Fowler employment and he would have had a home with his parents.

However, the governor succumbed to heavy lobbying from Yolo County officials.

The Woodland Police Department and the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office sent letters to the governor, requesting that he reverse the Parole Board’s decision.

Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig issued a statement, “Clearly Governor Brown reviewed all the evidence and made the right call,” said Reisig. “Our community cannot risk having a man who savagely killed a baby for no apparent reason living back among us.”

But such a move begs the question, why have a parole board at all if a governor is consistently overruling them? 

The 17-member board is appointed by the governor.  Their job, on paper, is to assess whether an inmate poses a continuing danger to public safety. According to a Sacramento Bee editorial however, “In reality, the board rarely recommends parole for aging lifers.”

The irony of overruling the parole board is that the parole board is in fact a political body appointed by a governor ostensibly to carry out his or her vision of criminal justice.  And yet, we have governors overruling their boards, and at times succumbing to political pressure and probably also to political effect.

In this case though, the Fowler case is the exception for Governor Brown’s policies, rather than the rule.

The Bee editorial on Saturday laid out the policy implications, “What should the governor do with lifers who have been recommended for parole by the state’s parole board?

They answer their own question stating that, “[Governor] Brown, so far, has tended to respect the decisions of the Board of Parole Hearings, which is the right response.”

The process has been further politicized by Proposition 89 which was passed by the voters in 1988.  That initiative requires that the governor personally approve each decision, which includes the authority to reverse the parole board’s decisions.

The Bee’s editorial board notes, “At the time, the Rev. Paul W. Comiskey wrote in the ballot pamphlet that ‘Proposition 89 will politicize decisions about whether to grant or deny parole.’ That is precisely what has happened.”

They add, “For example, early in his tenure Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger mostly followed the recommendations of the parole board in granting parole to aging lifers. Later, however, he backed off. What happened? Crime Victims United of California ran a series of television ads, combined with a rally at the state Capitol,  attacking Schwarzenegger for ‘releasing dangerous criminals.’ In the end, of 1,909 lifers recommended by the board for parole, Schwarzenegger rejected 1,400.”

“So now the predictable drumbeat is out hitting Brown for rejecting few of the parole board’s decisions,” they continue. 

Perhaps this explains why Fowler was an easy mark for Governor Brown.  He killed a baby, the most innocent of all victims.  He is only 49 right now.  He was himself a kid back in 1983 when the horrible crime occurred and apparently he did not express enough remorse.

The Bee concludes, “Californians need to understand: Our prisons shouldn’t be geriatric wards housing people who no longer threaten public safety. It is time for lawmakers and Californians to reconsider Proposition 89 and eliminate the governor’s role in lifer parole decisions.”

They add, “California is one of just three states – Maryland and Oklahoma are the others – that require the approval of the governor before an inmate sentenced to life in prison may be paroled.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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6 thoughts on “Governor Brown Shifts Parole Policies of Predecessors, But Not in Yolo”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    The stark difference of the three governors on this issue is quite interesting, Davis, Schwarzenegger, Brown. Don’t know about this issue. Obviously oversight by the Governor’s office is a check on the parole system, but on the other hand politics may get in the way of what should be a straightforward decision on the merits… and prison overcrowding is probably going to be a factor coming into play as well…hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm….

  2. medwoman

    Lots of possibly contributing factors in a complicated situation. Increasing crowding, federal involvement and pressure due to same, competing constituencies ( prison guard and other related unions, various constituencies favoring the reduction of prison costs either for reasons of purely fiscal responsibility or interest in maintaining funding for other programs, victims rights groups, groups representing the incarcerated and their families ) to name a few. Should be very interesting. I can see the prospect for many lively blogs.

  3. Tecnichick

    Very nice article David. I also question- what good is having a parole board if the governor does not trust their judgement? The parole board should have had an extensive file in front of them when making their decision about Fowler. The file would have his entire history from conviction to the current date including all education, classes, rehabilitation efforts and disciplines, if any. I dont think that the Governor truly understands what is going on in Yolo County. I am sure that all of the things that were said to be done to that baby was according to the District Attorney. Nobody knows for sure. Is this the same governor who wants prison reform? Fowler was sentenced 15 Years to life. He has served more than 100% of his 15 years. I think that the prison reform should start with letting people out who have served their time and have successfully rehabilitated. Who cares if he shows remorse? Being in that environment for so long, people dont realize the level of mentality that you have to have in there to survive. Otherwise you are considered weak and are preyed on.

  4. medwoman


    I am going to preface my comment with the disclosure that I have no knowledge of this case or this field. However, it does occur to me that in assessing public safety, the likelihood that a similar set of stressors might lead to the same response would need to be taken into account. If an individual demonstrates no remorse I would wonder if they have come to the point where they understand the devastating consequences
    of this response and if they would be able to control similar violent urges if provoked again. Would love to hear a psychiatrist or psychologists opinion on this one.

  5. E Roberts Musser

    To Technichick and medwoman: I think both your points are valid. Which just goes to show how difficult it is to make these sorts of decisions I suppose…

  6. rdcanning

    To Tecnichick:

    Disclaimer for transparency’s sake: I work for the corrections department and have worked with “lifers” who go before the Board of Prison Hearings to decide, as the law says, whether they are suitable for parole. I’ve written the psychological evaluations that include risk assessments that the Board reads.

    As far as I know, the Governor reads (or at least his staff do) the same record that the Board reads. He has all the same info. This includes the record from the original criminal proceedings, which means that there is info from the DA and from the defense. So it’s not just some nasty DA slant on things.

    There are also records from his time in prison, his personal statements about the crime, the record from previous hearings (lifers usually don’t get out the first time they go to the Board – more a half a dozen times or so), and also victim statements and from the DA if he/she attends the hearings, an attorney for the inmate, and maybe witnesses. So the record is typically pretty big.

    As DG points out, Jerry Brown is letting lifers out (letting the Board’s decisions stand) at a far higher rate than any governor in the last twenty years or so. That’s really good (my opinion).

    The governor’s opinion (which is what counts in the end because he signs the release order) about whether Fowler is remorseful is probably different from the Board’s. I think it is hard to make these decisions – even harder for us who have not reviewed much of the record and only get typical statements from the DA that show how hard on crime he is. These are all difficult cases, for the families, the prisoners, and for the people who have to make the decisions. I am sure there are a lot of victims’ families out there who are equally angry about the many lifers that Brown has let be released. I do agree with the Bee that the Governor ought not have the final say.

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