SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A former prison gang kingpin and a black revolutionary-turned-international fugitive are among 74 inmates who owe their freedom to a year-old California policy of granting parole for convicts who are deemed too old to commit new crimes.
Federal judges in February 2014 told the state to consider releasing inmates who are at least 60 years old and have spent at least 25 years behind bars to reduce its prison population. All were sentenced to life terms for offenses including murder and kidnapping, though they statistically are among the least likely to be a public danger regardless of the crimes they committed.
The Board of Parole Hearings denied more than two-thirds of the elderly parole requests it considered in the first year of the program, but recommended 111 inmates for parole. Of those actually released, 20 are at least 70 years old, while another 54 were between 60 and 69. Gov. Jerry Brown reversed parole recommendations for 20 inmates, keeping them behind bars, and 17 cases are still being reviewed.
Once a convict is deemed suitable for parole by two commissioners, the Board of Parole Hearings has 120 days to review the decision. The governor has an additional 30 days to intervene, which pushed the first actual releases into mid-2014.
Rafael Ernesto Gabriel might have been safer behind bars than he is following his release from California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo in October.
Gabriel was 23 when he and a fellow member of Nuestra Familia were ordered to kill a leader of the rival Mexican Mafia as the two gangs struggled for control of the illicit drug trade in Monterey County in 1976. They had heard that the victim, Alejandro Moreno, was planning attacks, so they decided "to get him before he got us," Gabriel said at his May 2014 parole hearing.
They tried to kill him with an overdose of heroin. When that didn't work, they stabbed him 39 times.
Gabriel became one of the gang's three highest-ranking members before he eventually began cooperating with authorities.
At 64, Gabriel was cleared for parole, partly because commissioners did not believe he would commit new crimes since he would be risking death by returning to his old haunts or associates, according to a transcript of the parole hearing.
"If the Nuestra Familia finds out, they will try to kill you. If the Eme finds out, they will want to kill you," said commissioner Ali Zarrinnam, using a Spanish language nickname for the Mexican Mafia.
California's prisons hold nearly 8,000 inmates like Gabriel who are over age 60, about 6 percent of the population. About 1,100 had served at least 25 years, were eligible for parole and were considered unlikely to commit new crimes as of July 2013, said national prison consultant James Austin, an expert witness in lawsuits over conditions in California prisons.
Releasing older inmates could save the prison system money: the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst estimates it costs two to three times more to incarcerate an elderly inmate than an average one because they're more likely to have health problems or need special housing.
The California District Attorneys Association, Crime Victims United of California and other groups say the program raises concerns about public safety and victims' rights, regardless of inmates' age or abilities.
"I'm 80 and I'm still a spitfire. You're telling me at 60 they're over the hill," said Harriet Salarno, founder and chairwoman of the crime victims group.
Yet age has long been considered the most reliable indicator of whether a convict is likely to commit a new crime, said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. The pool selected by the federal judges — inmates who committed their crimes decades ago, in their youth — are generally safer than those who offend in their later years, said Turley, founder and director of the Project for Older Prisoners in Washington, D.C.
The state recently began offering a support program for parolees freed after decades behind bars.
"Some of these guys are like taking Rip Van Winkle into the modern age," Turley said.
Larry Stiner, the black revolutionary-turned-international fugitive, was released earlier this year, but it's not the first time he's been out of prison.
In 1974, Stiner and his brother, George Stiner, walked away from a minimum security facility during a family visit. While George Stiner has never been captured, Larry surrendered in 1994 after living in South Africa for 20 years.
The brothers were leaders in the US Organization, a black militant group rivaling the Black Panther Party for prominence in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots and the assassination of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
They were sentenced to life terms after two Black Panthers leaders were killed during a 1969 shootout at the University of California at Los Angeles.
At his parole hearing in September, Larry Stiner, now 67, recalled feeling that, "the revolution was around the corner and that I had to be a part of it."
He was released from San Quentin State Prison in January.