Yesterday, a panel of the California Parole Board agreed to grant parole to one of the state’s most despised convicts, Leslie Van Houten. The 68-year-old former Manson cult member has been in prison for over 40 years and has been denied parole over 20 times in the past two decades.
Described as a “model” prisoner, Van Houten has earned a college degree during her time in prison and is considered by some as the least culpable of any of the Manson Family members. Van Houten, who was just 19 at the time of the Manson crimes, was nonetheless prosecuted and convicted as an accomplice in the 1969 killings of Leno and Rosemary Labianca.
Van Houten has accepted responsibility for her heinous actions on the night of Aug. 9, 1969. In statements to the parole board, she described her role in the murders, admitted guilt, expressed remorse. She has also pointed to a variety of positive character traits that she has developed in her 40-plus years in prison.
Last year, Van Houten was granted parole from confinement at California Institution for Women at Chino. However, Gov. Jerry Brown overruled the parole decision after receiving petitions and pressure from prosecutors and friends and family of the Labiancas. He could take similar action again.
After Van Houten was granted parole in 2016, the sister of Sharon Tate the actress murdered by the Manson Family, gathered 140,000 signatures opposing her release. However, Van Houten was not with Manson and others on the night of Tate’s murder. Ultimately, California’s governor decided Van Houten had failed to explain why a privileged Southern California teenage chose to become a killer.
Parole conditions vary by jurisdictions. In many states, parole boards conduct objective examinations, relying on empirical data and evidence in a truncated post-sentence “trial” of the parolee. Parole board inquiries and actions are typically governed by legislative guidelines and require investigation into specific details of a convict’s individual situation.
Generally, parole boards examine a parolee’s behavior in prison; accomplishments; completion of counseling and programs; successful rehabilitation or likelihood to reoffend; and acceptance of responsibility, among other considerations. They consult recidivism charts for various crimes, and often look to psychological assessments.
In some states, the board may accept input from angry family, vindictive judges, and prosecutors up for re-election. Additionally, the antiquated media adage of “If it bleeds, it leads,” results in a emotionally charged media coverage that distorts facts and obscures legal considerations. These are all subjective responses that have little factual bearing on a person’s rehabilitation or ability to return to society.
Gov. Brown’s dissatisfaction with Van Houten’s failure to explain why a 19-year-old participated in a killing is one such subjective burden that will forever prevent Van Houten, or anyone in her position, from receiving parole. It is a question that panels and consortiums of experts cannot answer, but allows Brown to remain in the public’s good graces by skirting legitimate facts.
Crime and punishment have become valuable commodities in political barter in America’s justice system. They are traded carelessly the way a drug dealer flashes cash after a big sale. In a nation where 97% of criminal cases are decided by leveraged plea-bargains, and the false conviction rate is growing annually, lives are being bought and sold for political office.
Late Wednesday, Twitter exploded with the news of Van Houten’s parole decision. Few, if any, on social media showed much compassion. The same Twitter users who railed about equality, peace, tolerance, love, and compassion in the wake of Charlottesville, Harvey, and in opposition to Donald Trump, also condemned Van Houten.
So much for America being the country of second chances; for having a constitution and system that is supposed to be fair and balanced; for the human and civil rights of a 19-year-old who has paid her price to society according to the laws of California. No matter what you think about Van Houten as a person, her parole decision is a product of larger values and it is impossible to separate the two without contributing to the social and political decline of the American experiment.
If Van Houten is released this time, she is likely to be shunned, harassed, and spat upon everywhere she goes. She will emerge from prison, after four decades to discover herself a foreigner in a strange land. Whether behind bars, or not, her punishment will continue.
As a nation of elevated and advanced moral values where we worship democratic freedoms and the American dream, how we react to the Van Houtens of the world when we encounter them ultimately defines us more than any other action. Our compassion, like our want of human rights, must be universal whether we are victims of crime, or merely onlookers who think we know better.