There is no rational reason for 73-year-old Leslie Van Houten to remain in prison.
Last week, an appeals court reversed a 2020 denial of her parole by Gov. Gavin Newsom after the parole board recommended her parole for the fifth consecutive time. Newsom concluded she “currently poses an unreasonable danger to society if released from prison at this time,” a finding based in part on his view that she “continues to lack sufficient insight into the risk factors” that resulted in her crimes half a century ago.
The appeals court, however, rejected the governor’s findings.
“The governor’s finding of inconsistencies between Van Houten’s statements now and at the time of the murders fails to account for the decades of therapy, self-help programming, and reflection Van Houten has undergone in the past 50 years,” the court found. “The historical factors identified in the criminal risk assessment are the sort of immutable circumstances our Supreme Court has held cannot support a finding of current dangerousness when there is extensive evidence of rehabilitation and other strong indicators of parole suitability, all of which Van Houten has demonstrated.”
Indeed, Newsom’s own denial of her parole notes that she “has participated in and facilitated self-help programming, including anger management, violence prevention, and substance abuse prevention courses.” She has earned college degrees and vocational training as well as having a problem-free disciplinary record.
Speaking directly to Newsom’s objection that she “continues to lack sufficient insight,” the court notes that a forensic psychologist concluded in 2018 that, “Ms. Van Houten’s expressions of remorse for the victims appeared genuine. At present, the risk factor, lack of insight, is not present.”
This was all basically true back in 2017 when I first wrote in support of her parole. As one parole commissioner told her back in 2016, “[If] you are not rehabilitated, I don’t know who is.” And as I wrote then, “With the passage of decades of time in which she has worked to better herself, Van Houten has also consistently been found to be at low-risk of future violence by over a dozen clinicians who have assessed her going back to the 1980s.”
That all matters and it all cuts against Newsom’s judgment.
Some, mainly Boomers for whom the Manson killings were a big deal in their younger years, will insist she deserves to stay in prison forever because that’s what should happen to those involved in the Manson killings. But that’s not the standard under the law nor should it be under basic rational assessment.
Here, we have an elderly prisoner who has been punished with half a century of imprisonment, who has done everything one could do to prove rehabilitation and who has long been deemed at low-risk of future violence. There’s no public benefit to keeping such a person behind bars. It’s a waste of public expenditures as well; prisons are costly places better reserved for people who are actually a threat to public safety.
What she did half a century ago was terrible, but she’s been punished for it and no reasonable person could conclude she’s “an unreasonable danger to society” as Newsom concluded given the facts of her rehabilitation.
Newsom should let the appeals court ruling stand and should let Van Houten go.
Sal Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org