Eye on the Courts: How Much is Enough – the Line Between Public Safety and Redemption

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prison-reform

Nearly 30 years ago Chris Fowler committed one of the most unthinkable acts one could imagine – tired, angry, and most of all high on drugs and alcohol, Mr. Fowler, just 22, took out his frustrations on an innocent 22-month-old baby, beating the child to death.  For that crime, he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison and has been eligible for parole now for nearly 20 years.

As we reported back in 2011 and just last week, on November 8, 2010, Mr. Fowler was found suitable for parole, but then politics got in the way.  The Yolo County DA’s office put massive amounts of pressure on Governor Jerry Brown, and Governor Brown who ironically has been more likely to allow parole to go forward than his predecessors, succumbed to that press, arguing, if released, Mr. Fowler would pose an unreasonable risk to public safety, and reversed the parole board’s decision.

The story, however, does not end there as last week, the appellate board reversed the parole denial after concluding that the governor’s stated reasons for reversing a grant of parole were not supported by evidence.

This is actually a remarkable decision because the governor has a high level of discretion here and the court itself noted, “The Governor’s decision need only be supported by a ‘modicum’ of evidence.”

One site suggests that since Governor Brown took office, the parole board has conducted 5648 hearings and granted parole to just 463.  That’s 8%.  While that seems low, it’s actually far higher than either of his predecessors, Governor Gray Davis or Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The reaction to the decision by local authorities was rather predictable.  Yolo County Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven called the appellate decision “very disappointing,” although he simply mentioned the baby’s family rather than arguing why the appellate decision was wrong.

However, the baby’s aunt told the Bee, “For them to release a crazy man into the streets is absurd. He’s never, ever shown remorse. He can’t. He’s amoral.”

But her assessment was disputed by years of psychological reports and the court assessment.  In fact, while she may have attended the parole board hearings, she was not in a position to evaluate Mr. Fowler, let alone render judgment.

While the victim’s family plays an important role in the process, they are not in a position to objectively evaluate the evidence, weigh the factors and make a determination on the basis of solid evidence and psychological evaluations – that job falls to the parole board.

There is no doubt that Mr. Fowler committed an unthinkable crime when he was 22.  However, as Sister Helen Prejean said last week in more general terms, we need to start understanding that “the human being who did that outrageous act is more than that one act in their life.”

Mr. Fowler was a young and troubled man when he committed this crime and was sentenced to a life term in prison, barring parole, in 1983.

The question is who is he today and whether he represents a threat to society.

Can we ever know for sure?  No, we can’t.  And I have a lot of concerns about the resources and opportunities available to parolees and convicted felons in this society.  It is one of the reasons that critics like Michelle Alexander talk about convicted felons in much the same terms as we viewed the system of Jim Crow.

However, if anyone deserves a chance, it is Chris Fowler, not because of what he did in November of 1983 but because of what he has done in the last 30 years.

A 2004 psychological assessment concluded:  “In my opinion, Mr. Fowler’s level of risk of re-offense is very low. . . .  Mr. Fowler has matured considerably since the time of the crime, he has engaged in ongoing introspective processes with measurable changes in the troubling personality features that contributed to the offense. . . .  He is genuinely remorseful for the offense and he is committed to substance abuse/dependency recovery.”

In 2007 a psychological evaluation noted the defendant acknowledged his crime and accepted full responsibility for his actions.  The defendant stated “he [did] not have a total understanding of why he committed what he characterize[d] as a horrible crime.”

“Our review of the record reveals no evidence connecting any arguable lack of insight to the conclusion that defendant would present a risk to public safety if released on parole,” the court writes.  “Defendant’s positive behavior in prison, his lengthy participation in seemingly every available rehabilitative program and volunteer program while incarcerated, and his statements to psychologists and the Board do not establish any likelihood defendant would pose a risk to public safety if released on parole.  In addition, none of the psychologists who evaluated defendant believed he posed such a risk.”

The court finds, “A review of the record reveals that a defendant has acknowledged the material aspects of his or her conduct and crime, shown an understanding of its causes, and demonstrated remorse, [and] the Governor’s mere refusal to accept such evidence is not itself a rational or sufficient basis upon which to conclude that the inmate lacks insight, let alone that he or she remains currently dangerous.”

The governor stated in his reversal on April 7, 2011: “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.”

We agree with the governor about the “utter inhumanity” of the crime, but the evidence suggests that the rest of the governor’s statement is wrong.

There are certainly people in our community who believe that such an act warrants a life without parole or even a death sentence.  I understand where those people are coming from, but I disagree with them.

Mr. Fowler is no longer that angry and out of control 22-year-old.  I believe we have a better path here.  The better path would be a restorative process where the victims of this horrible crime sit down with the offender and they figure out ways in which Mr. Fowler can continue the process of redemption.

For me, the chief purpose of the correctional system should be on corrections – first and foremost that means protecting the public from dangerous individuals, but in so doing, restoring those individuals to potential productive members of society – at least those individuals who can be restored.

Based at least on the parole report and the evaluation of prison psychologists and the prison officials, he has worked hard to become a better person – dealing with his own substance abuse problem and acknowledging remorse and guilt.

While it is understandable that the district attorney’s office be skeptical, the prison officials are probably the best judge of Mr. Fowler at this point.

It perhaps is possible that Mr. Fowler could have fooled them over the last more than two decades, but it seems unlikely.

The DA’s office has made it their policy to be the voice of victims, but in the end it is unclear that this approach really is healthy for the victims.  While it is difficult to know, there still seems a good deal of anger and hurt from this crime and perhaps a better role to play would be helping the victim’s family to more effectively and productively deal with this hurt and loss and help them move forward in positive ways.

But most of all, it is time to stop playing politics here with these critical decisions.  The decision to release a convicted killer is always and must always be a very difficult one, weighing our notions of justice with the need to protect the public.  These decisions need to be based less on political calculations and impulsive reactions and more on clear and evidenced-based science and evaluation.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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17 thoughts on “Eye on the Courts: How Much is Enough – the Line Between Public Safety and Redemption”

  1. JustSaying

    “…then politics got in the way….while she may have attended the parole board hearings, she was not in a position to evaluate Mr. Fowler let alone render judgment….The better path would be a restorative process where the victims of this horrible crime sit down with the offender and they figure out ways in which Mr. Fowler can continue the process of redemption….These decisions need to be based less on political calculations and impulsive reactions and more on clear and evidenced based science and evaluation.”

    Ridiculing the motives of the elected officials tasked with making these decisions and denying the legitimacy the “victims'” biased opinions may help assure that killers’ roads to redemption via restorative justice will be very long indeed.

    I’d call DNA testing “clear and evidence-based science.” But, psychological testing? The record for parolees with positive psychiatrists’ predictions hardly is perfect.

    A public that supports capital punishment isn’t really open to hearing Sister Prejean’s appeal for second chances.

    Maybe “Gideon’s Army” will help the masses better understand those who fill our jails and prisons and how arbitrary the process is that sends them there. Come to think of it, maybe we’ll be more tolerant when nearly all of us have a friend or relative in lockup (ala LGBT history).

  2. David M. Greenwald

    I’m sorry I think this is a lot more about politics and less about evidenced based practices. You are correct in noting that the record of parolees with positive psychological evaluations is not perfect, but human behavior is very complex. We can only do our best to make the right decision – but that needs to be based on evidence, not presumptions.

    I think the public is moving around toward Sister Prejean’s appeal.

    I’m not denying the legitimacy of victim’s opinions, but I don’t believe they are in a position to objectively assess risks here.

  3. JustSaying

    “I think the public is moving around toward Sister Prejean’s appeal.”

    Agree, but in whose lifetime? As you note, human behavior is very complex. Like a box of chocolates.

  4. sheldonsite

    The Board of Paroles has been playing games with the law. They even have a workbook for commissioners that detail how to word a denial so it looks legitimate. But once an inmate gets training, education, rehabilitative programming and understands the crime and circumstances, feels remorse and has grown up, is disciplinary free s/he SHOULD be found suitable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t play well in politics so denials always go back to the heinousness of the crime. Which is ILLEGAL to do. After 30 years if this man has done the work expected of him then he should be found suitable and be let free. This is why the three judge court has gotten into the act and is looking at California’s Board’s and Governor’s practice of denials. It’s just illegal.

    Also, after 30 years if the victim’s family has not found peace and mental health from learning to let go then they still need some help with this process. There are many good groups out there set up to help them through find internal peace and a voice to end the violence. No one should be so angry and feel the loss so invasively that it invades their ability to move on after 30 years. How do our military do it, parents do it, children grow or communities heal if not for moving on with their life.

    I vote that if he has done the work, served his time for the crime and has been proven by the criteria for release that he is released. Shame on our society that takes on the same criminal behavior robbing another of their life in such a calculating manner.

    Where is the voice of reason?

  5. Themis

    Well said sheldonsite. As we all know there is no voice of reason in politics. The court system needs to be depoliticized. The DA’s office should not have any say as to whether someone gets probation or not.

  6. Iggee

    umm… why in heck would anyone suggest that a ‘better path’ would be to have the victims sit with the offender and figure things out? I hope it is not a suggestion of policy.
    1. I would not want to sit in a room with someone who’d beaten my child to death. I can’t imagine as a parent having such a horrible thing happen, much less have someone want me to sit with the offender to ‘discuss their options for redemption’. that may be doable for some, but I believe it would be, in many cases, re-victimizing the victims again. victims should be protected wherever possible.
    2. Even if they agreed to sit with the offender, are victims of a crime, non-legal professionals (or heck, legal professionals), unbiased people capable of making recommendations? Judges routinely recuse themselves from cases where there may be bias or the very appearance of bias. rightly so. do we want it incumbent on the victim to ‘forgive’ the offender?

    Having said that, an offender making restitution is not a bad idea. The offender doesn’t need to be in contact with the victim(s) to do so. Nor does restitution have to be made to the victims themselves, if not appropriate. What is appropriate restitution for the death of a child? There is nothing that can replace a child or mitigate the loss.

    Restitution in the form of public service, or service of some type, can be made, however. When I was in high school some ex-cons came in and gave a talk on their crimes, drugs, etc. How about restitution in the form of working toward the prevention of future crimes by others? I am not an ex-con, but I think all of us can relate to the idea of making up for something that you’ve done wrong. Or helping others to avoid your mistakes, etc.
    I would like to think that those men who spoke to us, might have felt some sense of personal achievement, that they are giving back. they are being productive members of society. I’m sure that’s not appropriate for many, but channeling offenders into productive occupations, not just work but emotionally productive interactions, etc. making them feel connected to society, would help, in my non-expert opinion.
    Of course, doing all these things for at-risk populations before they’ve become offenders would be better. Social services programs are always the first to go, though they’re less expensive than running prisons.

  7. JimmysDaughter

    Was the mother present when Mr. Fowler beat her child to death because the little boy was crying? Zero tolerance for child abuse. Even slapping.(People don’t want to say “slapping”, so they use the more socially acceptable word,”spanking”. It’s slapping.) An adult isn’t allowed to slap another adult without consequences. Parents should never be allowed to do something physical to their child that’s illegal to do to an adult. If the mom was drunk & high, she still should know that shaking & hitting her baby is wrong. You don’t forget your moral compass when you’re drunk & high. It’s still with you. So why does the mom get a chance at forgiving this guy? She should be more concerned with forgiving herself for letting it happen in the 1st place. Why did she let an angry man near her baby?

  8. Davis Progressive

    people like to throw out terms like zero tolerance, but what does that means – we cut off your head if you slap your children? life imprisonment?

  9. JimmysDaughter

    When people are over the top stressed, angry at the world and society says it is okay to “spank” your toddler, that’s where the problem lies. They lose control & it gets out of hand. Spanking is always wrong. Hitting, slapping,shaking is never okay. Physical violence is never proper discipline.

  10. JimmysDaughter

    Amazing how even liberal folks say slapping a kid is okay, but slapping an adult is a crime. Look at other countries who do not allow hitting kids. I bet their crime rate is lower.

  11. JimmysDaughter

    Talk to enough parents who have never slapped their kids, you’ll learn it’s possible. Kids are no worse off, actually are probably better equipped to face life knowing their parents taught them self control. What do you teach your kid when your only option for discipline is hitting them?

  12. Iggee

    umm… Sweden is a country with socialized welfare policies, and many differences besides corporal punishment.
    Singapore publicly canes people, their murder rate is only 30% of Sweden’s.
    If we follow the simple logic presented above, then perhaps if we publicly cane folks, our murder rate will one day be as low as Singapore’s…

  13. AdRemmer

    David where’s your write upon former Woodlander Bruce Young,who has been denied parole? Check out what he did (crime) and what he has accomplished while in cdcr

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