It looks like the event I hardly imagined could ever happen might happen: Gov. Newsom announced that he would not appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision to reinstate Leslie Van Houten’s parole. The Associated Press reported Newsom’s obligatory statement, as well as some valuable words from Van Houten’s attorney:

In a brief statement, the governor’s office said it was unlikely that the state’s high court would consider an appeal of a lower court ruling that Van Houten should be released.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is disappointed, the statement said.

“More than 50 years after the Manson cult committed these brutal killings, the victims’ families still feel the impact,” the statement said.

. . .

“She’s thrilled and she’s overwhelmed,” [her attorney Nancy] Tetreault said.

“She’s just grateful that people are recognizing that she’s not the same person that she was when she committed the murders,” she said.

After she’s released, Van Houten will spend about a year in a halfway house, learning basic life skills such as how to go to the grocery and get a debit card, Tetreault said.

“She’s been in prison for 53 years. … She just needs to learn how to use an ATM machine, let alone a cell phone, let alone a computer,” her attorney said.

In the last chapter of Yesterday’s Monsters I looked at factors that might or might not be conducive to the release of any of the people I featured in the book. What paved the way to Van Houten’s release was the reemergence of adolescence as a relevant factor for parole; she had been living an exemplary life of self-reflection and rehabilitation for many years and was nonetheless repeatedly denied based on “lack of insight”, which, as I and others have discussed, is nonfalsifiable. The Commissioners had always known that Van Houten was 19 when she participated in the LaBianca murders, but a series of Supreme Court decisions gave them explicit permission to consider her age, and that’s what tipped the scales.

I now see these cases through the broader prism that Chad Goerzen and I develop in FESTER (coming to a store near you in January 2024), which highlights the travesty of turning our prisons into geriatric facilities. Beyond the obvious issue of medical risk, there is the question of what freedom looks like to a septuagenarian leaving prison after 53 years. Even without the added difficulty of immense stigma and animosity, Van Houten, who is a bright, thoughtful, and talented person, and who has academic degrees, will find it very hard to find and hold a job in this market. She has had to endure a lot behind bars, and her reentry is unlikely to be very easy. I wish her all the best. Our paths did not cross–she did not wish to be interviewed for Yesterdays’ Monsters–but I very much hope they will some day.

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