Another blast from the past: a parole hearing is scheduled soon for one of the criminals in the notorious Chowchilla, CA schoolbus kidnapping case, almost 35 years ago. Three idiots in their early 20s hijacked a schoolbus full of kids, aged from 5 – 14, drove them around for hours, then buried them underground in a sealed moving van; they demanded a ransom of $5 million, but the escapade almost immediately unraveled, and they were caught and sentenced, at first to life without parole, but on appeal to life with (the possibility of) parole. Of the three perpetrators, one is described as a “model prisoner” and has been found “suitable for parole”, but is still a long way from actually getting out. (It would be at least another 10 years before he’s released, even if things go smoothly for him. He’d be about 67 by that time.)
I well remember the shock of this case. I grew up in California, not too far from Chowchilla. By odd coincidence, one of my father’s best friends was Sheriff of the county in which the crime occurred, and was one of the first responders after the kids went missing. (The case was immediately taken over by the FBI, and the kids escaped by their own efforts less than a day after they’d been taken; the kidnappers had brilliantly buried them on their own property, so it wasn’t hard to figure out who had done it. The whole thing was wrapped up quickly, but it was a topic of conversation between them for some time.) Although the kids were found safe by the next morning, the case electrified the state, and everyone was frantic during the initial search. It remained a prominent issue due to the odd features of the case: children buried underground; the (somewhat overdramatized) unpleasant conditions in the sealed van and the efforts of the kids and bus driver to dig themselves out; and the fact that all three perpetrators were from wealthy families, with no criminal records, and had apparently dreamed up the whole stupid stunt from a movie script they wrote and then decided to carry out for real. There was no question about guilt, but the prosecutor worked to elevate the charges to secure a conviction without possibility of parole due to certain features of the case; that was the issue that was overturned on appeal, making the criminals – who have now spent almost twice as much time behind bars as they had ever lived previously – eligible for a super-long-shot stab at eventual release.
What was interesting to me about the story linked above is that many of the officials involved in the prosecution are now supporting parole (at least in the case of the one prisoner who has been positively evaluated). When I began reading it, I expected another round of self-righteous demands from former victims and cranky patriots, holding that their personal grievances should determine the workings of the legal system for the rest of society. But what I found was a frankly shockingly level-headed and dispassionate perspective on the case from many quarters, including the prosecutor and some law-enforcement officers who had worked on the case:
each [of the three criminals] has been denied parole dozens of times. Supporters say their continued imprisonment makes a mockery of the idea of rehabilitation. [Former prosecutor David] Minier, now a retired judge, favors parole for all three kidnappers.”Quite frankly, I am simply amazed that Richard Schoenfeld, given his record as a model prisoner, was not paroled years ago,” Minier wrote the parole board in 2006.
At the Feb. 23 news conference in San Francisco, Dale Fore [NB: not my Dad's friend - KTK], one of the lead investigators in the case, said: “They were just dumb rich kids, and they paid a hell of a price for what they did.”
After retiring from the Madera County Sheriff’s Department, Fore worked as a private investigator for the Woods family’s attorneys, tracking down kidnapping victims to see if any would write letters of support for parole. None has.
“I might not be the most popular guy when I get back home,” Fore said. “But right is right. How much time do you want out of these guys?” . . .
Retired Court of Appeal Justice William Newsom was a member of the panel that overturned the original sentence, and for decades he has written letters supporting parole. “It’s a matter of justice,” he said.
“I don’t believe in punishment for punishment’s sake. They’ve been model prisoners. They’ve served their time. It was awful, but it was more of a mad prank than a vicious crime. There was no bodily harm. To keep them in prison at this time is histrionics to me.”
To be sure, not everybody is on their side. One of the former victims is quoted opposing parole, which is hardly surprising, but, as I noted recently, personal interests are exactly what cannot be allowed to drive a system of justice. And of course the article gives the last word to some random character who wasn’t even in the county when the crime occurred - he watched it on television from Sweden; he thinks they should stay in prison for life but can’t articulate any reason, and that’s good enough to get him in the paper. (His connection to the case: he now owns the bus the kids were riding on, plus the second-oldest farm tractor in the world. So obviously his personal whims count in this matter.)
It’s remarkable to me that the attitudes expressed above are not only not vengeful, but are couched in considered moral and legal terms of some sophistication: “they paid a hell of a price”; “How much time do you want”; “I don’t believe in punishment for punishment’s sake”; “they’ve served their time”; “[not a] vicious crime”; “no bodily harm”; “To keep them in prison . . . is histrionics”. These opinions turn on issues that get to the heart of justice: proportionality, retribution, penance, and the necessary neutrality of law. Most of all: “right is right”; “It’s a matter of justice”. Exactly. Punishment is a part of justice, and thus subject to the same principles that make the notion of justice in the broad sense what it is. Doing justice demands that we acknowledge those principles, and allow them their scope in the decisions we make. Justice is decidedly not personal vengeance on the part of the wronged, and it is not just however we happen to feel about people once they’ve transgressed. Idiot conservatives often say just that (“they forfeited their rights by committing a crime”), as if justice were an optional benefit that can be withdrawn at will, and not the substance of political society as such. The mere acknowledgment that there are limits on how we can treat people – even people who have done bad things – is taken as an affront by the right wing, and too often by decent people who ought to know better, too. To see that that is not universally the case, as I had begun to fear that it was, is heartening.
Unfortunately, the parole system is so absurdly stacked against, not just prisoners, but the notion of justice itself, that even parole becomes a tool of vengeance and not the process of justitial punishment. As Justice Newsom says, their crime was awful. It’s hard to express how horrified everyone in California was when the news broke, and how angry they were even after the kids were found to be safe. But at the same time, these lunkheads have been in prison for 35 years for a stupid, impulsive crime that lasted 16 hours, in which no one was seriously hurt. It’s hard to imagine they represent a threat to anyone now – or that they have, in fact, for most of the time they’ve been locked up. Their continued imprisonment serves only as vengeance – deliberate harm to them as an expression of hatefulness triggered by revulsion at their crime. Yet there is almost no way to acknowledge rehabilitation in their cases, or to move their treatment under the justice system back onto a footing of justice and not vengeance. (If they committed the crime today, there would be literally no way: right-wingers pushed through a state Constitutional amendment years ago that explicitly specifies as a matter of law that the purpose of punishment in California is “retribution” – called by that name – and not rehabilitation. Yes: justice is unconstitutional in California.) It’s virtually impossible to get parole in the US today – in California at least as much as anywhere else. The article notes that all three of these prisoners have been rejected “dozens of times”. That’s typical. But what can the parole board want from a “model prisoner”, other than being a model prisoner? What is it possible for a prisoner to do beyond that – especially given the almost complete lack of opportunity to do anything in prison other than simply follow rules, and given the fact that the prison system did away with rewards for education, self-improvement, and other re-socializing attainments years ago? And, since one of these prisoners has now finally been recommended for parole, what has changed now, after 35 years, since the last of the dozens of times he was denied? Since there is no way for a prisoner to do anything to prove their fitness, and no reward for anything they might do if they could, there is of course no evidence of their eligibility for parole, which of course is used against them to prove that they are not eligible. Doesn’t it go without saying that in any parole system that is not mere self-mockery, there must be a way to actually qualify other than through the personal inclinations of lax and belligerent board members? But that’s only the first hurdle: if this “model prisoner” does manage to survive his next parole hearing, he must be approved for parole by the governor, who may reject him for no reason at all. And, if by magic he manages to get an elected politician to do the right thing for a convicted criminal, he must still serve another 10 years, during which time he must undergo further hearings. And, he can be challenged at any time in that 10-year period by whoever else happens to come in as governor, still for no reason at all, and have to go back through the process again. It’s no more than a truism to say this system is set up to fail. But more than that, it’s set up not to do justice at all.
That makes the refreshingly insightful comments of the judges and jailers above particularly welcome. I was honestly surprised to find anyone quoted in a story like this who perceives punishment and rehabilitation through principles of justice and not merely dyspeptic personal resentments. To find that perspective on the part of prosecutors and police officers is almost a shock. I would like to think that more people are willing to put aside their personal reactions, ask the necessary questions – “What was done?”; “How bad was it?”; “How much punishment is enough?”; “How much danger remains?” – and abide by the answers. Current political trends aren’t encouraging in that respect. But this was a hopeful exception.
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