Public Affairs Books, 384 pages, $26.99, hardcover
Life After Murder
reads like a documentary. No surprise there: Author Nancy Mullane is a radio reporter who produces feature stories for National Public Radio. Her book follows the post-incarceration careers of five Californians who were convicted of murder, sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, and subsequently paroled.
There are 17,000 people serving such sentences in California's prisons. The passage of Proposition 89 in 1988 gave the governor the power of review over Parole Board decisions to parole lifers, with the entirely predictable result that parole decisions instantly became politicized. In 1977, the average lifer sentenced on a first-degree murder conviction with the possibility of parole served 10.5 years. By 2011, the average lifer with the same sentence served 31 years
Life After Murder
follows five paroled lifers as they try to readjust to life on the outside after decades on the inside. These men are having a helluva time. California doesn't make it easy for a paroled felon, let alone a paroled murderer, to reintegrate into society. No state does. People who are sentenced to life for murder convictions rarely have marketable skills, or upper-middle-class families to support them. They more often come from a background of drugs or gangs.
One of Mullane's subjects, Phillip "PJ" Seiler, has two incarcerated sons. Another, Jesse Reed, moves back into the family home, only to discover that his brother is using drugs and storing them in the house. Eddie Ramirez lands a $12-an-hour job, "making just enough to fill the car with gas," then loses it in the 2008 recession. He and his wife hang on by their fingernails, living on her paycheck, until his union calls him back to work two years later.
Don Cronk, the good-luck guy of the bunch, has a girlfriend waiting for him on the outside with her own home, her own business, and a steady income. Though Cronk has the easiest acclimation task of any of Mullane's subjects, he has the closest brush with reincarceration. By chance, he encounters a physician who operated on him inside the prison. The physician calls the prison several times, claiming that Cronk is banging on the doors of his house, demanding drugs. Cronk says he and his girlfriend were sightseeing when they saw the physician standing on the deck of his house, and Cronk recognized and greeted him. "It's a murderer's word against a doctor's word," his parole agent says.
Cronk isn't returned to custody because his record is otherwise exemplary, but he winds up wearing an electronic cuff on his ankle.
Mullane is writing about a tiny proportion of California's population. But their problem is an aggravated version of the problem all convicted felons share, which is a problem for our society in general. We let these men (and they're almost always men) out of prison, but it's virtually impossible for them to reintegrate into society. The author is clearly sympathetic to her subjects, but she offers no answers. The book's subtitle is Five Men in Search of Redemption
. Mullane's subjects have compiled their own rotten criminal records. Yet none of them seems beyond redemption. And if they can't be redeemed, what do we do with them - and with felons in general?
California's problem will only become more acute with our state's realignment policy. So how do we balance the need to punish the most serious of criminals against the need to offer a realistic possibility of rehabilitation? Plato was the first person to address this question (and many others). In Gorgias
, he wrote: "[I]t is proper for everyone who suffers a punishment rightly inflicted by another that he should either be improved and benefited thereby or become a warning to the rest, in order that they may be afraid when they see him suffering what he does and may become better men." Over two thousand years later, we're still struggling to find a balance.
Ben Pesta is a white-collar and criminal defense lawyer in Century City.