governor brown bows to pressure and reverses former manson family member leslie van houten’s parole approval

by nikki meredith

I’m discouraged that Governor Brown, for the second year in a row, has refused to follow the parole board’s recommendation to release Leslie Van Houten. I’m also surprised. For those of us who have followed his political career from a law-and-order hard liner as a young governor to a humane, seasoned and, we thought, wise leader as an older governor, this is a major disappointment. When he was younger, he didn’t believe in rehabilitation. Now he’s known as a governor who believes in second chances, but not in this case. Here, he’s bowing to pressure from the loudest and the most reactionary voices in the criminal justice system.

The murders of Mr. and Mrs. La Bianca were horrific. No one disagrees. To this day, the description of the events of that night takes my breath away but to keep Leslie Van Houten locked-up almost 50 years later is not just, by any stretch. If it had not been a high profile crime, she would have been paroled many years ago. There isn’t a single person who actually knows her who believes that she’s dangerous and that includes mental health professionals who have evaluated her, professors she’s studied under, journalists who have interviewed her, correctional officers she’s worked with side-by-side. Her case file is filled with reports demonstrating that she’s not only rehabilitated now, she has been for several decades.

[Brown] also noted Van Houten’s exemplary conduct in prison. Supporters and prison staff have described her as a model inmate who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and, as Brown put it, “exceptional work ratings as a tutor.” Van Houten also took leadership roles in self-help efforts among inmates. (LA Times)

Brown acknowledges her many achievements but he’s still keeping her locked up. His rationale last year was that Leslie remains an unreasonable risk to society because of her “inability to explain her willing participation in such horrific violence.”

I spent 20 years interviewing among the best and the brightest social psychologists and brain scientists who couldn’t, with any accuracy, explain Leslie’s participation in such horrific violence. How was it was possible that a young girl raised by loving parents, a girl with many gifts and much promise was able to mute her basic humanity to such a degree that she murdered Mrs. Rosemarie LaBianca, a woman she did not know, on the orders of Charles Manson?

At a 2002 parole board hearing, Van Houten said she was “deeply ashamed” of what she had done, adding: “I take very seriously not just the murders, but what made me make myself available to someone like Manson.” (LA Times)

I’m sorry to call our governor a liar but he’s certainly not being truthful when he claims that she doesn’t take responsibility for her involvement. Only someone determined to distort who she is can make that statement. The determination to distort who she is has been the problem since the first parole hearing.  In 2002,  San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Bob Krug harshly rebuked the parole board for ignoring Leslie’s exemplary prison record, accusing the board of denying parole for Van Houten in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner in deciding that she remains a threat to public safety based solely on the severity of her crime. “They can’t keep using the crime forever and ever. That turns her sentence into life without parole,” the judge wrote. “If I was Miss Van Houten, I wouldn’t have a clue what to do….”

So what gives with Brown? At the age of 79 his political future can’t have figured prominently in his calculations. Is this about his legacy? If so, I can’t argue with that. No one would have erected a statue in his honor for doing right by a former member of the Manson family — so yes, it would have taken courage, apparently courage he doesn’t have.

The travesty is that he allowed himself to be pressured by people who don’t know Leslie at all – victim groups and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. The disproportionate power these two groups have wielded in the parole process has resulted in the mess our correctional system is in now. But, thanks to the passage of Proposition 57, a measure the governor supported, the power is being returned to parole boards and away from D.A.s. Leslie’s case is a perfect example of why that needs to happen.

Victim groups and district attorneys are invested in keeping the pain and anguish of the original crimes fresh. For families of victims, cleaving to that pain is a way of honoring the ones they lost, but it’s also fueled by revenge. Prosecutors aren’t generally interested in how inmates have changed. Rehabilitation is not part of their vocabulary. Their priority is to make sure everyone remembers how bad the crime was – especially in high profile cases. It garners votes.

Violent behavior of ordinary people has bewildered civilized society as long as there’s been civilized society. How do people who have been identified as “normal” become killers? In Rwanda, how could ordinary Hutus slaughter 800,000 of their neighbors, friends and relatives? How could “normal” Germans participate in the annihilation of 6 million Jews? How was it possible for a platoon of regular U.S. soldiers in My Lai to massacre hundreds of innocent Vietnamese villagers — women, children, old people? There are theories and there are clues but we are not yet at the point of understanding cause and effect at the most fundamental level. We do know that those who murdered in these situations weren’t all psychopaths. They weren’t all monsters. They were “normal” people vulnerable to social forces that turned them into killers and sometimes rather quickly. We have a designated place in our chamber of horrors for psychopaths. We have no such place for someone who is “normal.”

Instead of helping her, Leslie’s positive attributes – of which there are many – have repeatedly been used against her. Steven Kay, the former deputy district attorney who argued against her release for over four decades always viewed her rehabilitation with suspicion. He said more than once and to more than one reporter, that of all the former members of the Manson family, Charles Manson was the one he continued to respect: “Charlie has changed so little over the years. He’s basically the same old Charlie.”

If that’s the yardstick he’s using, he’s right. Leslie is not the same old Leslie. She understands the gravity of the crimes and the terrible harm she caused but she is also an example of what kind of rehabilitation is possible when everything works the way it should — an individual who is motivated to change, family and friends who support her in that change, the availability of psychotherapy and education and the opportunity to help others. Leslie is an example of what can happen when the system works the way it should. In recommending her release, the parole board recognized this. How long will it take for a governor to?