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Lawyers and advocacy groups trying to gauge Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approach to parole received yet more signs this week that times have changed.

On Monday, Adam Riojas was released from the Chuckawalla State Prison after the governor let stand a release recommendation from the Board of Prison Terms. Riojas was serving a 15-year to life sentence for a second-degree murder for which his father reportedly confessed.

A year ago, Gov. Gray Davis had blocked Riojas’ release, just as he’d voted to overrule parole for almost every other convicted killer during his almost five years in office.

The prison board had also recommended release for Riojas a year ago, and the district attorney in the case “showed up and didn’t oppose parole — which is extremely rare,” said Justin Brooks, a Western School of Law professor and director of the California Innocence Project, a program that examines prisoners claims of innocence and works on their behalf.

“It was exactly the same case, 12 months later, the exact same facts,” said Brooks. The only difference, he added, was the willingness of a new governor not to let political fears force his hand on parole.

The Board of Prison Terms did not rule on Riojas’ claim of innocence. Instead, it maintained that Riojas was unlikely to return to prison or criminal activity.

“The signal he’s sending is, he’s letting the parole board do its job,” said Brooks. “He doesn’t have to prove he’s a tough guy. He could let every parolee go by, he could clear off death row, and still not worry about being perceived as soft on crime.”

Schwarzenegger has said little directly about his approach to parole. But it’s clear he’s handling it differently than Davis did.

According to information collected by the Board of Prison Terms, 370 prisoners incarcerated for murder were recommended for parole during the Davis administration. Of those, just eight actually ended up paroled.

According to the governor’s office, the parole board has recommended parole in 80 cases since Schwarzenegger took office. Schwarzenegger declined to review 27 of those, reversed in 50, and returned three for review by the full board.

Schwarzenegger has signaled a softer approach in other areas as well.

On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court signed off on a clemency request that Schwarzenegger had submitted last month for Pamela Martinez, a three-strikes defendant who faced the possibility of having to return to prison for an additional 65 days. The justices action commuted her sentence to time served.

Late last year, the governor indicated he was considering abolishing parole requirements when releaseing some nonviolent inmates — a move that could end up saving the state as much as $231 million a year.

Aides told reporters that the governor was also open to the idea of asking lawmakers to shorten sentences for lesser crimes, and in some cases, using alternatives to costly incarceration. Those proposals came in the aftermath of a scathing November report from the watchdog Little Hoover Commission, which alleged that the state spends $1.5 billion a year supervising 125,000 parolees, with fewer than a third successfully completing parole.

But the governor hasn’t indicated that he’s willing to hand every inmate a “get out of jail free” card. He has also reversed parole board decisions recommending parole for lifers and has refused to grant clemency for death row inmate Kevin Cooper, who won a stay of execution in federal court two months ago.

The change in policy towards parole is being watched very carefully by law and order advocates.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the California Justice Legal Foundation, said his group is generally pleased with Schwarzenegger’s decision to allow parole in cases where the circumstances merit a second look and, in the opinion of the parole board, the prisoner “at least appears to be reformed.”

But, he added, a lenient approach to incarceration may not serve the state well.

“I would urge [Schwarzenegger] to be very cautious,” Scheidegger said. “If you let people out of prison to commit more crimes, you may have saved the government some money, but you have done it by inflicting losses on other people. Protecting people from crime is the first and most important function of government.”

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