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California Governor Commutes Sentence of Abuse Survivor, Grants Clemency to Several Others

Advocates have been urging Governor Gavin Newsom to make greater use of his clemency power, especially for older prisoners who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

California Governor Gavin Newsom(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Teresa Paulinkonis had her sentence commuted today after spending 31 years in prison for the 1989 murder of her stepfather in Alameda County. At the time, Paulinkonis was 24 years old. She was sentenced to 25 years to life. Paulinkonis’s attorney, Lilli Paratore, told The Appeal that Paulinkonis was sexually abused by her stepfather for a number of years. 

“Given her history of sexual violence and status as a survivor, which the [parole] board hadn’t given the appropriate weight or consideration to, we were able to convince the governor that it was time for her to come home,” said Paratore. “I think it’s a great step in the right direction, but I think Governor Newsom has the power to commute many more people, especially those who have already served very long sentences, and he should.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the commutation, which makes Paulinkonis immediately eligible for release on parole, on Friday. 

“While in prison, Ms. Paulinkonis has worked hard to better herself,” Newsom wrote in a letter commuting Paulinkonis’s sentence. “I have carefully considered and weighed the evidence of Ms. Paulinkonis’ positive conduct in prison, the fact that she was a youthful offender, and her good prospects for successful community reentry. I have concluded that Ms. Paulinkonis is ready to be released on parole.”

Newsom also granted 10 medical reprieves, which allow people with health issues to be temporarily released from prison, and pardoned 9 people who had finished serving their sentences.

One of the people Newsom pardoned was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in 1996 because she cut her work supervisor with a piece of glass during a fight. The pardon prevents her from potentially being deported and separated from her family.

Advocates applauded the clemency moves but said they were too modest, particularly one year into a deadly pandemic that has spread rapidly behind bars. “At any point, given that mass incarceration is a crisis at all times—and on top of that we have the COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated people in prison—these numbers are not nearly enough,” said Colby Lenz, an organizer with Survived and Punished. “It’s significant that they’ve expanded the number of medical reprieves. They should be applauded for these ten medical reprieves today, but they need to do more, and soon.”

Rickie Blue-Sky, 75-year-old transgender Native American elder, was among those granted medical reprieve today. He was sentenced to 27 years to life for murder in 1984, and has been incarcerated for 37 years. Blue-Sky was also one of Paratore’s clients. She said the reprieve “addresses some of the unfairness in how he was convicted in the first place.” 

Blue-Sky has maintained he is innocent, and though he has been eligible for parole for years, he has long been denied. At one point, a deputy district attorney for the San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office said Blue-Sky posed a threat to public safety if released because he “for whatever reason, denies constantly that she is a woman or a female.”

“It appears that he is the first incarcerated trans person that certainly Newsom has granted clemency to, but possibly in California history,” said Lenz. “It has taken a long time to get here and we need this to be the first of many more.”

The state prison population has decreased by more than 24,000 since March 2020, in part because of releases to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. There are currently over 91,000 people incarcerated in California state prisons. While efforts have been made to reduce the state’s prison population in the past year, only about 10 percent of those released were 55 years old or older—a category of people the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say are at significant risk of death or serious complications from the virus.

As of Friday, 215 people in California prisons have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic and more than 49,000 people have tested positive for the virus.

Newsom has granted 72 pardons, 79 commutations and 20 medical reprieves during his tenure, which began in 2019. His predecessor, Jerry Brown, issued 404 pardons and one commutation during his first tenure as governor from 1975 to 1983. Brown ultimately set a record in the state for the use of clemency between 2011 and 2018 during his second tenure as governor, issuing 1,189 pardons and 283 commutations.

Advocates have been urging Newsom to make greater use of his clemency power, especially for older prisoners who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. 

“I think the big misconception is that people feel you’re releasing the same people that were arrested right after their crime,” said Earlonne Woods, who helped create and host the podcast Ear Hustle while he was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. “People don’t put in consideration that most of the people are getting released 15, 20, 30 years later. People have worked on themselves.”

Woods received a commutation from his life sentence from Brown in 2018.

State Senator Nancy Skinner applauded the governor for granting medical reprieves. “This is particularly important during this deadly pandemic as there are so many in our prisons who are elderly and medically vulnerable,” she said. “I hope that more such clemency and medical reprieves are offered in appropriate circumstances.”

Newsom’s clemency announcement comes as he is facing a potential recall campaign, largely for his handling of COVID-19 lockdown measures. 

The clemency announcement comes at a time when opponents of criminal justice reform have taken up recall campaigns against San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón. Both Boudin, who took office in 2020, and Gascón, who was elected in November and took office in December, ran on reforming the criminal justice system and have instituted policies like eliminating cash bail to reduce the carceral footprint in their cities. Gascón, who has only been in office a few months, is facing recall efforts before many of his policies have even played out. 

CORRECTION: This story initially misstated the number of commutations former Governor Jerry Brown granted during his final two terms.