Late last month a panel in California recommended parole for a 69-year-old convicted murderer who had spent more than forty-five years in prison. In and of itself, that information is probably not too shocking. Forty-five years is a long time in prison. Presumably the person up for parole is very different than the person who committed the crimes. But this is no ordinary murder case and, as a result, no ordinary prisoner. The prisoner in question is Leslie Van Houten, a former follower of Charles Manson.

Youngest Member of the Manson “Family”
Leslie Van Houten was the youngest member of the “Manson Family” convicted in the infamous Helter Skelter killings in August 1969. She did not participate in the first night of killings. The victims that night included pregnant Hollywood actress Sharon Tate. Van Houten was an active, and willing, participant the second night. The victims were Rosemary and Leno LaBianca.

This parole recommendation is only the most recent development in a strange legal case. Van Houten was originally convicted in 1971 and sentenced to death, making her the youngest female inmate on California’s death row. In 1972 the death penalty was overturned and her sentence changed to life in prison. Her conviction was later overturned and she was granted a new trial, which ended in a hung jury. At the third trial, she was convicted of two murders and given a sentence of seven years to life in prison. She has been up for parole more than twenty times. This is the third time she has been approved for parole. The first two times the governor rejected the recommendation.

What is Enough Prison Time?

In a case like this, the obvious question is “how long in prison is long enough?” It is a question without an easy answer. We can look at the case from different angles. Two people were brutally murdered. But Van Houten was very young, highly impressionable, and abusing drugs at the time of the killings. She has earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree while in prison. She also has a documented history of working with other inmates by running self-help groups. So, again, the hard question is, how long is prison is long enough?

What Purpose Prison?

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The answer to that question probably depends a great deal on how you answer other, more basic, questions. What is the purpose of prison? Why do we lock people up? There are four answers which seem to be the most common. One, to punish the prisoner for their own bad behavior. Two, to deter other potential criminals from committing similar bad acts. Three, to protect society. Four, to reform or rehabilitate the prisoner. Before we can analyze Van Houten’s case, we need to know what we are trying to accomplish.

Punishment

For example, if the primary goal is punishment, it may seem that no length of time is enough. The crime was particularly gruesome. Two innocent people lost their lives. No punishment can ever fix that wrong. In fact, Governor Jerry Brown used this logic in denying the two previous parole recommendations. In 2018, Governor Brown said, “the aggravated nature of the crime alone can provide a valid basis for denying parole, even when there is strong evidence of rehabilitation and no other evidence of current dangerousness.” In other words, the punishment has not yet equaled the crime.

Crime Deterrent

If the primary goal is to discourage others from committing similar acts, however, I think the answer is more difficult. The Manson family were heavy drug users at the time and were under the influence of a cult leader. They were not likely to be dissuaded from their plan even if they knew what the consequences would be. It is unlikely anyone will be in a “similar” position as Van Houten. If they are, though, I doubt any message of deterrence will get through to them. Society has an interest in preventing any murder, not just drug-fueled cult killings. Perhaps the harsh punishment will deter someone from killing even if they are not in similar circumstances. However, there may be good reason to believe that a forty-five-year prison sentence serves as just as effective a deterrent as a fifty-year sentence. After all, most murders are not worried about the long-term consequences of their actions. It seems unlikely that adding more time to Van Houten’s prison term will really provide much incentive for anyone else to stay on the straight and narrow path. Overall, I think this rationale probably produces an indecisive result.

Societal Protection

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What if the primary goal is to protect society? This goal would seem to strongly argue in favor of granting Van Houten parole. She is 69 years old now and no longer taking LSD on a regular basis. It seems highly unlikely that she poses much threat to society. In addition, she has obtained two college degrees and worked to help others in prison. Even Governor Brown acknowledged there was no evidence of a current danger to society.

Rehabilitation

Finally, if the primary goal is to rehabilitate the prisoner, parole again seems appropriate. In addition to gaining her sobriety, it appears Van Houten has taken advantage of the opportunities offered to improve herself. She has also acknowledged her role and stated “I take full responsibility for the entire crime. I take responsibility going back to Manson being able to do what he did to all of us. I allowed it.” It would seem the Leslie Van Houten of 2019 is not the same as the Leslie Van Houten of 1969.

Parole is always a difficult question. Society balances various factors in trying to determine how long is long enough to serve in prison. The nature, and notoriety, of Leslie Van Houten’s crimes make her case even more of a challenge. Ultimately, I think the answer comes down to how we look at the question. After all, we cannot really know how long is enough, until we decide what we are trying to accomplish. We have to answer “enough to do what” before we can answer “how long is enough”.