California Politics: Why some prisoners are still locked up after Newsom said they could get out early
SACRAMENTO — Rahsaan Thomas walked out of San Quentin State Prison on Wednesday, more than a year after Gov. Gavin Newsom said he should have his sentence shortened because he had “dedicated himself to his rehabilitation” by completing college classes and self-help programming while serving more than 20 years for second-degree murder.
Weeks before he was freed, Thomas — co-host of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Ear Hustle” podcast — spoke with Times reporter Mackenzie Mays for an article exploring why so many people who have received commutations from Newsom remain locked up long after he granted them mercy.
“I can’t curse a blessing,” Thomas said in a phone interview from prison on Jan. 11. “My one wish is that this process, if you get a commutation, it should be streamlined. Really, it should be streamlined for everybody. … If you decided it’s safe to let me go, why drag it out?”
While the governor’s clemency power allows him to unilaterally free people he deems worthy, Mays’ analysis found that the governor usually doesn’t use it that way. Instead, Newsom sends prisoners to the parole board, allowing its commissioners to decide their fate.
The result: Of the 123 commutations, or reductions of sentences, that Newsom has granted since he became governor in 2019, a third of those people remain behind bars — in some cases years after the governor’s recommendations.
In Thomas’ case, Newsom commuted his sentence in January 2022, and he was granted parole by the board in August. Then came a mandatory review period of up to 150 days. He was released the day The Times published the article about dozens of people, including Thomas, remaining in prison despite receiving mercy from the governor.
In 19 other cases, Newsom granted commutations to prisoners he believed had demonstrated rehabilitation — but the parole board denied their release.
The infamous case of Willie Horton, who raped a woman after being allowed to leave a Massachusetts prison in 1986, has put politicians on alert for decades. Republican George H.W. Bush highlighted the case in an infamous attack ad that helped him defeat Michael Dukakis, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, in the 1988 presidential race. Ever since then, the “Willie Horton effect” has become synonymous with the political risks involved in granting prisoners early release.
Newsom, who issued a moratorium on the death penalty during his first year in office and has ordered the closure of some state prisons, has touted his clemency power as “an important part of the criminal justice system” in news releases announcing his commutations. But some of the criminal justice experts Mays interviewed said his deference to the parole board can essentially render commutation meaningless in some cases.
“It’s hard to see it as anything other than political cover,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and co-founder of the Clemency Resource Center at New York University.
There’s a lot more to The Times’ investigation, including some powerful stories from prisoners who were denied parole even after Newsom said they could have their sentences shortened. Read the full article here.