By: Ridgeway Woulfe
On January 19, 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown denied parole to 68-year-old Leslie Van Houten, marking the second time he has done so despite the state’s parole panel recommending release both times. Van Houten has been, and now continues to serve a life sentence for murders she committed when she was 19 while a member of recently-deceased cult leader Charles Manson’s “family.” Van Houten has accepted fault in allowing Manson to manipulate her, but Brown said this is evidence she still blames too much of her crime on Manson. Her further claims the heinous violence Van Houten employed in the murder (stabbing the victims after they were dead, smearing their blood on the walls with her hands, and then drinking their chocolate milk from the refrigerator) contributed to his denying parole. To date, only two members of Manson’s “family” have been released from prison: one whose crime was pointing a gun at then-president Gerald Ford, and the other who revealed the location of the corpses after the murders. Van Houten’s attorney says he plans to appeal the governor’s decision.
In California, prisoners up for parole are first reviewed by the state Board of Parole Hearings, who make recommendations regarding parole. The Board is comprised of 15 commissioners appointed by the governor, deputy commissioners, forensic clinical psychologists, investigators, and administrative and legal staff. California is one four states which gives the governor absolute power to review and reverse parole decisions, as Brown did. Penal Code § 3041 provides a life prisoner eligible for parole must be granted parole unless the board or the governor decides “the public safety requires a lengthier period of incarceration.” Generally, the Board makes parole decisions, and it is an exception when the Governor decides an individual’s fate. Governor Brown has been one of California’s most liberal adjudicators in approving parole.
For as much as California holds itself out as a bastion of progressivism in criminal justice, this case demonstrates its limits are not without bounds. For all of the efforts made to legislate opportunities for reformed criminals to regain their freedom, human decisions can always yield less progressive results. For believers in restorative justice, there is always hope in being able to end imprisonment and grow the community.
Obviously, there are cases in which releasing a prisoner is not yet a genuine option, as doing so will put others at risk. But, in the case of a woman approaching 70, who has spent the last 30+ years as a model citizen after joining a cult for stability in her teens, one has to believe there are circumstances to allow her to experience some form of freedom in her adult life without putting the public at risk.
Something besides public safety must be at play, and Brown alluded to as much, saying “[t]he devastation and loss experienced by the LaBianca family and all the victims’ families continues today.” This statement speaks to the retribution theory of justice, imposing punishments because people who have acted wrongly deserve punishment. It could also lend itself toward the condemnation theory of punishment, punishing those to help society solidify after violent acts. This theory is unlikely to be relevant to Van Houten’s case, however, given she has already been serving a life sentence for decades. Brown is using retribution theory for maintaining Van Houten’s sentence against the Board’s recommendation. Of the theories of justice for imposing punishments, retribution is the most primitive and least results-oriented approach for addressing wrongdoing in society.
There is little value in using imprisonment to deter people from joining cults, as the decision is often made in desperation. Rehabilitation theory also doesn’t apply, as Van Houten has demonstrated peacefulness during her entire prison stint. The only reason to keep her imprisoned is because society finds her behavior nearly 40 ago years to be so grotesque. And it is. But if California’s goal is to be a leader in progressive justice reform, it must be prepared to push the envelope further and decline to take one’s inherent freedom only for finding prior actions reprehensible, no matter how reprehensible. If society doesn’t gain from one’s imprisonment, as the Board appears to say is true in Van Houten’s case, then it is a regressive decision for a single man to keep her imprisoned seemingly because she didn’t prove repentant enough for his standards.
Time will tell if Van Houten will be able to experience freedom in her lifetime, but California must decide whether it is looking to restructure a justice system that has failed so many over the years, or if it is going to maintain the status quo of keeping people imprisoned well beyond its purpose.