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10 Aug, 2010 00:28

California parole system often dictated by political aspirations

In 2009 Norma Cumpian was found to be suitable for parole by the California Parole board. That decision was overturned by California Governor Arrnold Schwarenegger.

Cumpian was convicted of murdering her abusive boyfriend during a violent attack, one of many in their relationship.

When I first came here my son wasn’t even a year old and I think that he kind of sees me and the other women he’s met at the visiting room, he kind of sees us as women who have gone through a lot and still standing on our feet,” said Cumpian.

Now 40-years-old, she has been behind bars since 1992.

This is somebody who doesn’t belong behind bars, somebody who made a terrible mistake and readily admits that she made a terrible mistake by picking up the gun in the first place,” said Will Rollins, a law student at the University of Southern California and certified attorney for the Post Conviction Justice Project.

This is a reality shared by many women at the California Institution for Women near Los Angeles. Most have long histories of abuse from the person for whom they are convicted of killing.

Down the road, the USC law school has taken up the cause of many of these women, in a program called the post conviction justice project. Professor Michael Brennan is one of the founders.

Our clients for the most part have committed one serious crime in their life, and that’s the crime they're serving their sentence for,” Brennan said.

They are represented by law students, like Andy Merton.

I’m representing Marisol Garcia who at the age of 13 years old was trafficked into the United States and sold to a man who for six years, physically, emotionally and sexually abused her,” said Merton.

Garcia was forced at gunpoint, to help that man drag and bury the body of a man he had shot, and then convicted of aiding and abetting.

So far, she has served 17 years. In March, she too was deemed suitable for parole.

The parole process is really the beginning of a long legal battle for the convicted. It’s not the end of the story.

It turns out it's not even the end of this chapter.

Both of their paroles were reversed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Of the 4,000 cases per year that go before the board, about 17 percent are found suitable for parole. Of those, Governor Schwarzenegger, overturns more than 60%. Previous governors overturned about 90%. But why, when the board was appointed by the governor himself?

Because most governors in California certainly in some point in their career feel that they may have the possibility of running for president,” Brennan said. “They’re concerned about granting parole to inmates that might go out and commit a serious crime.You can’t turn paroleable sentences into what we call LWOP sentences, or Life without the possibility of parole simply because victim’s rights groups or others think that if you’ve been convicted of murder you should never be paroled.”

A broken system. Chances given, then taken away.

And still many hope the system will change, especially Norma Cumpian, who hopes to be reunited with her son.

"It will work out in the end,” Cumpian said. “If you really truly love somebody like the way that I love him, I want him to be the best. Even if I have to stay here forever, I just want him to be the best.”

American radio host Thom Hartmann says people have been treated as disposable in the US for centuries.

“In the United States for…really up until the last may be four-five decades, we had so much space, so much potential for growth that many people were considered disposable. We had slaves that were largely viewed as disposable,” Hartmann told RT. “Europe has a very different experience; Europe has been densely populated for centuries, for millennia. And so, in Europe the problem of problem-people has been, ‘We are going to have to have these people back in our culture, and their relatives and friends and what not, so how can we fix them?’ In America it was ‘Just string them up, they are disposable people,’ and so we went from the Wild West notion, hanging, to the modern notion of the death penalty.”