(Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series exploring the history of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.)
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Rather than serving out their time until release, convicted criminals were given a reason to be on their best behavior with the passage of the 1893 parole law.
The new law marked a turning point for the state correctional system.
Creation of parole
Clara Shortridge Foltz was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. She became the first female to pass the state bar. Later, she sued for the right to attend the first law school in California, busting down the door for other women to follow.
She held the title of many “firsts” in California. She was the first woman to serve as a legislative counsel; first woman to prosecute a murder case; first woman to serve as a deputy district attorney; first woman to serve as a district attorney; first woman to hold state office, and at the age of 81 in 1930, she became the first woman to run for governor of California.
She is credited with creating the role of public defender in the judicial system as well as the parole system.
In 1891, there was a push to create a system for releasing inmates back into their communities with some skills so they could transition into law abiding citizens.
A Feb. 7, 1891, editorial in the Sacramento Daily Union called for the passage of a parole bill introduced by Sen. Frank McGowan and Assemblyman Nestor Young.
“The (proposed) parole system is reformatory and deterrent,” the newspaper declared. The paper went on to tout the benefits of a parole system.
On Feb. 22, 1891, the San Francisco Call gave credit to Foltz.
“The bill was drawn up by Mrs. Clara S. Foltz, who has devoted much time and attention to the unfortunate people and wards of the State, after a careful consideration of the laws of the several states whose prisoners are paroled. … The result, if the bill becomes law, will be to reform prisoners, give them an opportunity, and to reduce the expense running our penal institutions. Under the proposed law, the prisoners paroled would be under the control and supervision of the boards, and may be returned to prison if they violate the promises they make, or if they leave the State, they are to be held to be escapes, and if arrested, shall be returned to prison,” the paper reported.
It took another two years to become law.
On March 27, 1893, the Call reported the passage of the law.
“Among the bills to which Governor Markham attached his signature is that known as the parole bill,” the paper reported.
Its passage wasn’t without controversy.
“It was to have been expected that the San Francisco Chronicle would oppose and denounce the parole bill. It now declares that the Act will turn loose upon the State without any restraint a host of bad characters and reckless criminals, and so on,” the Sacramento Daily Union reported on March 10, 1893. “The Act will do nothing of the kind. No prisoner can be paroled except by consent of the Board … and under regulations of strong restraint, and not then until the man has earned favor and credits through merit. Instead of being without restraint, the paroled will be under greater restraint, since he will be under the constant liability to be returned with entire loss of credits if he disobeys the regulations of parole.”
Life in 1893
Headlines in 1893 varied from accurately determining the boundaries of Alaska and the possible annexation of Hawaii to Canada seeking independence from Great Britain.
A 10-room home in Los Angeles sold for $6,500. A chicken ranch and six-room house with a barn, corrals and fencing sold for $1,650. If buying a home was too pricey, one could rent half of a duplex with four rooms, bath and pantry for $8 per month.
Clara Foltz and those pushing for women’s suffrage lived in a time when women were thought too delicate to handle working life. An advertisement for a “vegetable compound” promised to fix a woman’s “displaced womb” caused by too much standing and the stress of working.
A woman’s “outing” suit sold for $6.50.
The first paroles
“Its powers under the law passed by the Legislature at its last session, known as the ‘parole law,’ were exercised yesterday at San Quentin for the first time by the State Board of Prison Directors, and two prisoners were allowed the privilege of going at large,” reported The San Francisco Morning Call on Dec. 10, 1893.
“These are not the first two in the State, however, to enjoy the parole privileges. Folsom recently took the initiative in that respect when the Pitt River Indian Chief, John Turner, and the Shasta County homicide, Garrety, were given conditional liberty. Turner was an Indian homicide. Following the notion of his tribe, he killed a medicine man because the latter failed to cure Turner’s brother. He was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. Garrety’s term was for six years.”
According to the newspaper, the board wasn’t rushing to open the gates of the prisons.
“The Directors, of whom there was a full board present yesterday at San Quentin, showed a disposition to be very conservative in granting the parole privilege. Felons who have served a previous sentence in a penal institution and murderers whose crimes have come within the first or second degree are excluded … under the law,” the paper reported. “Several applications were denied.”