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Was an Alleged Double Murderer Paroled Years Early from Prison?

May 13th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

Wednesday night the LA Weekly posted a story with the headline:
Zachariah Timothy Lehnen, Accused in Double Murder of Culver City Pair, Could Have Been in Prison Until 2013 But Was Released Early

The story, which was written by Dennis Romero, opened like this:

The transient accused of killing two people in Culver City this month was let out of prison late last year — with three years cut off his time — via a controversial early-release program.

Thirty-one-year-old Zachariah Lehnen’s parolee information sheet, obtained by the Weekly, shows that he could have remained in prison until November of 2013 but was let out under California’s “non-revocable parole” law, which went into effect last year as an attempt to save taxpayer money by letting low-level, nonviolent offenders out early.

Romero is a good reporter and the story was well-sourced with law enforcement types, including a retired parole officer. And surely those sources must know what they’re talking about, right?

Well, apparently not.

“Early release” is the new bogey man that, of late, so-called public safety advocates—many of them law enforcement professionals—trot around with a staggering disregard for… know….facts.

Here’s the deal:

According to his parole paperwork, Lehnen, the alleged murderer, was a transient who had served time for drug possession, probably possession of crystal meth. He had also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was also likely supposed to be on medication since his report specified “Psychiatric outpatient clinic,” and he was forbidden to have alcohol.

Lehnen was paroled from prison on November 9. 2010. His official prison term (and thus the end of his parole), terminates on November 9, 2013.

Lehnen was not, however, released from prison three years early as part of some new program. There is no such new years-early program.

Here’s what is true:

Everyone in the state of California who is convicted of a nonviolent, non serious, non-sex-related felony—like this guy—does half their time. If you are sentenced to six years, you do three. For the remaining three you are on parole.

If a crime is violent and/or serious, you will do 85 percent of of your sentence.

Again, this is not some new program.

The “half-time” (or 85 %) structure has been built into California’s sentencing and parole policy for years and years. The notion that Lehnen got some kind special treatment and that the state should or could have held him for another three years is simply nonsense.

Nonviolent, non-serious lawbreakers know at the time of their sentencing that, as long as they aren’t written up for disciplinary infractions when they’re locked up, with rare exceptions, they’ll do half their sentences.

What is new for California is the idea of non revokable parole.

Up until last year, much of California’s nearly 70 percent recidivism rate (the highest in the nation) was caused, not by people committing new crimes, but by parolees violating the technical terms of their parole. If they tested dirty, or they missed an appointment with their parole officer, or strayed into a forbidden neighborhood, or left town to visit grandparents without permission—or any number of other infractions—they’d go back to prison. Nearly two thirds of the thousands who returned to prison each year in California, did so for technical violations.

These parole revocations were costing the state a fortune with no appreciable gain in public safety.

In 2009, in effort to slow down this revolving door—and its attendant cost to the taxpayer— and still protect public safety, the CDCR decided that a certain class of low-level prisoner would be eligible for non-revokable parole. The parolee would still get out of prison at the same time, and still be on parole, which means they could be searched at any time by law enforcement, but they could not be hauled back to prison unless they actually committed a new crime. Part of the idea was that parole supervision would be reserved for those who need it most, and that those “high control” cases would get better supervision since parole officers’ case loads would be lightened up to more manageable levels. (You can read more details here.)

The program kicked in last year.

None of this, however, has anything to do with “early release.” And, yes, the state does have a new early release program unrelated to its parole reform, but unlike what the alarmists are saying, “early” is a matter of a few weeks ahead of schedule, not years. (To put it another way, this means if someone who turns out to be a bad guy up-to-no-good gets early release, he’ll be committing his post release bank robbery in, say, May instead of July.)

What is a legitimate question—what we should be talking about-–is whether, due to his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, Lehnen should have been excluded from the non-revokable parole program and made more high control. We ought to be asking if someone—a parole officer— should have made certain that he stayed on his meds (if, indeed he was on bi-polar medication).

I’m betting—as is the very experienced criminal attorney I consulted as I was writing this—that the alleged killer went off his medication and had what amounts to a psychotic episode. And two people are dead as a consequence.

So, yes, there’s something important to talk about with this case. But please, let’s use actual facts when we have the discussion.

PS: IT’S IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT ROMERO has updated his story several times on Thursday evening to reflect some of what I’m talking about, as he continues to check on the facts of the matter. In other words, he too is trying to get to the bottom of things. But the supposedly expert sources who repeatedly misrepresent the facts….are not helping.

Posted in parole policy, prison policy, Sentencing | 2 Comments »

2 Responses

  1. clark elliott Says:

    Unfortunately, the diagnosis bipolar is way overused and misused. Doctors often use it to describe any type of depression and it is also used euphemistically in lieu of antisocial personality disorder, the newer term for what has been called sociopathology. Labeling one with this latter diagnosis, with its obvious baggage, was inviting litigation. I’m pointing out here that this fellow’s mental status may be more confusing then meets the eye.

  2. Johnny Chingas Says:

    Clark, where’d you go to medical school?

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