Parole Suitability Hearings


Overview

A parole suitability hearing is a hearing conducted by the Board of Parole Hearings (board) to determine if an inmate should be released from prison.

A parole suitability hearing is often a very stressful and significant event for inmates, victims, victims’ family members, correctional staff, and the community. The board is dedicated to protecting public safety, treating all persons who participate in a parole hearing with respect and dignity, applying the law in an unbiased manner, and protecting the rights of inmates and victims.

The board conducts parole suitability hearings for a variety of inmates who are sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including:

  • Inmates sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, commonly referred to as life-term inmates or “lifers,” once they have served a certain amount of time based on the sentence imposed by the court.
  • Youth offenders –inmates who were under the age of 23 at the time of their offense, who have served a minimum of 15, 20, or 25 years of continuous incarceration, depending on the sentence imposed by the court, and who are eligible for a youth offender hearing.
  • Inmates who are age 60 or older, who have served 25 years of continuous incarceration, and who are eligible for the state’s elderly parole program.

The purpose of a parole suitability hearing is to determine if an inmate should be released from prison. Parole suitability hearings are usually conducted in-person at the prison where the inmate is located. However, inmates serving their California prison sentence in another state may have their parole hearing conducted by telephone or via video-conference from a location in California. Hearings are conducted by a two or three-person panel comprised of commissioners and a deputy commissioner.

Who May Attend a Parole Suitability Hearing

In addition to the board’s commissioners and deputy commissioners, others who may participate in a parole suitability hearing include the inmate, the inmate’s attorney, a representative from the district attorney’s office that prosecuted the inmate, victims, and victim family members who have registered with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services. Victims and their family members may have the right to have a representative, support person, and an attorney attend the hearing. For more information about victims’ rights and the parole suitability hearing process for victims and their families, please visit the CDCR’s Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services website at: http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Victim_Services/ or call toll-free 1-877-256-6877. A language interpreter may attend a parole hearing too, if needed for the inmate, and correctional officers will be in the hearing room for security purposes.

The board’s executive officer may also authorize members of the public to observe a parole suitability hearing to learn more about the parole hearing process. Observers may not have a personal or professional interest in the case, nor may they know the inmate, victim, victim’s family, or any other hearing participant. Finally, the executive officer may authorize credentialed members of the media to attend a parole hearing.

What to Expect at a Parole Suitability Hearing

One of the first things a hearing panel will do at a parole suitability hearing is have all parities attending the hearing identify themselves for the record. All parole suitability hearings are recorded and transcribed.

The hearing panel will then address any preliminary issues the parties may have. For example, there may be a request to postpone the hearing.

Another preliminary issue that may be addressed is a request from the inmate to stipulate to being unsuitable for parole. This means the inmate is requesting to be denied parole without a parole suitability hearing. If the offer to stipulate is accepted by the hearing panel, the inmate will be denied parole for 15, 10, 7, 5, or 3 years and the parole suitability hearing will not occur. For more information about stipulations, please click here.

Once preliminary issues are considered and resolved and it is determined the hearing will go forward, the hearing panel will begin reviewing relevant information and asking the inmate questions. Once the panel finishes reviewing documents and questioning the inmate, the district attorney’s representative will have an opportunity to ask the panel clarifying questions, the inmate will then have an opportunity to make a closing statement, followed by closing statements from the inmate’s attorney and the district attorney’s representative. Victims, the victims’ family, and their representative or attorney will then be asked to provide their statements to the hearing panel.

After the hearing panel has questioned the inmate, reviewed relevant documents, and heard from all hearing participants, the panel will excuse everyone from the hearing room and will deliberate in closed session. The panel will then have everyone return to the hearing room and announce its decision. A hearing panel may grant the inmate parole, deny the inmate parole, or the hearing may result in a “tie vote” if it is a two-person panel and the hearing panel cannot agree on a decision. If the inmate is denied parole, the panel will announce the length of the inmate’s denial. Inmates may be denied parole for a period of 15, 10, 7, 5, or 3 years.

Infrequently, a case results in a “tie vote.” But when it happens, each panel member will announce his or her proposed decision on the record and the case will be forwarded to the full board for review and a vote at one of the board’s monthly executive board meetings, also referred to as an “en banc” review.

In rare circumstances, the panel may stop a hearing and continue the case if a decision cannot be made without additional information. If this happens, the board will reschedule the hearing in approximately four to six months and notify all parties of the new hearing date. The board will make every effort to reconvene the same hearing panel to finish the case. However, if it is not possible to reconvene the same panel, the board will schedule a hearing once the additional information is available and a full new hearing will be conducted with a new hearing panel.

Information Considered at a Parole Suitability Hearing

The purpose of a parole suitability hearing is to determine whether an inmate currently poses an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released from prison. In making this determination, the hearing panel will consider all relevant, reliable information available to the panel, statements from the inmate, victims, victims’ family, and statements from the district attorney’s office and the public.

The panel will review and ask the inmate questions about his or her social history, past and present mental state, past and present attitude toward the crime, criminal history, and other criminal misconduct that has been reliably documented, as well as the inmate’s commitment offense(s). The panel will also consider the inmate’s behavior before, during, and after the crime(s). In addition, the hearing panel will consider special conditions under which the inmate may safely be released to the community and any other information which bears on the inmate’s suitability for release.

There are a number of factors the board will consider that tend to show an inmate’s suitability and unsuitability for parole. These factors are general guidelines and “the importance attached to any circumstance or combination of circumstances in a particular case is left to the judgment of the panel.” Additionally, the California Supreme Court has held that “the presence or absence of insight is a significant factor in determining whether there is a rational nexus between the inmate’s dangerous past behavior and the threat the inmate currently poses to public safety.” Some examples of factors the board will consider include the following:

Factors Tending to Show Parole Suitability Factors Tending to Show Parole Unsuitability
  • lack of a juvenile record or significant history of violent crime
  • crime was committed as a result of significant stress
  • stable social history
  • remorse and understanding of the nature and magnitude of the offense
  • present age reduces the probability of recidivism
  • realistic plans for release and marketable skills
  • institutional behavior indicates an enhanced ability to function within the law upon release
  • the commitment offense was committed in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner
  • previous record of inflicting or attempting to inflict serious injury on a victim, particularly if serious assaultive behavior was demonstrated at an early age
  • unstable social history
  • prior sexual assault in a manner calculated to inflict unusual pain or fear upon the victim
  • lengthy history or severe mental problems related to the offense
  • serious misconduct while in prison or jail

What to Expect After a Parole Suitability Hearing

All decisions by a hearing panel are proposed decisions. Proposed decisions will become final within 120 days from the date of the parole hearing. During the 120 days following a parole hearing, the audio recording of the hearing will be transcribed and the decision will be subject to review by the board’s legal office.

If a parole hearing resulted in a tie vote, the full board will review the case and determine the outcome of the hearing at one of its monthly executive board meetings. The full board will review only the transcript of the hearing and the records considered by the hearing panel when determining the outcome of a tie vote. The panel member who participated in the hearing that resulted in the tie vote will not participate in the board’s consideration of the case. Because the board must limit its review to the transcript and records considered by the hearing panel, no public comment about the case will be taken at the executive board meeting. Parole decisions rendered by the full board after a tie vote will be proposed decisions and will be subject to review by the board’s legal office for up to 120 days from the date the full board determined the outcome of the parole hearing decision at a monthly executive board meeting.

In addition, any proposed decision may be referred to the full board for review and a vote for any reason by a commissioner or deputy commissioner who was on the hearing panel. The full board has up to 60 days from the date of the hearing to review the case. If a hearing panel member refers a case for en banc review, the full board will review the decision and determine whether it should be affirmed or vacated. If the board votes to vacate the hearing panel’s decision, a new hearing will be ordered and scheduled in about four to six months. If the full board affirms the hearing panel’s decision, the decision will become final within 120 days from the date of the parole hearing.

Review of Parole Decisions by the Board’s Legal Division

The board’s legal division may review any parole hearing decision, but it is required to review all decisions resulting in a grant of parole. Decisions are reviewed to determine if the panel made an error of law, if the panel’s decision was based on an error of fact, or if there is new information that should be presented to the board, any of which when corrected or considered by the board has a substantial likelihood of resulting in a substantially different decision upon a rehearing.

If the chief counsel finds there was an error of law, error of fact, or there is new information that should be presented to the board, he or she will refer the case for review and a vote by the full board at one of the board’s monthly executive board meetings. This is referred to as an “en banc” referral, meaning it is being referred to the full board for review. The board will review the case and vote to affirm the decision of the hearing panel, vacate the decision of the hearing panel and order a new hearing, or modify the decision. The board will accept comments from the public at the executive board meeting and will review comments submitted in writing before the executive board meeting before rendering a decision on the case.

If the chief counsel or a hearing panel member does not refer the decision to the full board for review, the decision will become final within 120 days after the date of the parole hearing.

The Governor’s Review of a Parole Decision

Parole decisions that become final are subject to review by the Governor. The Governor has 30 days to review a decision. The Governor may take no action and allow the decision to stand, reverse the decision (if the inmate was convicted of murder), or refer the decision to the full board for review “en banc” and a vote at one of its monthly executive board meetings.

If the Governor takes no action on a parole grant, the inmate will be scheduled for release. In some cases, however, the inmate may not be immediately released, such as when the inmate was convicted and sentenced for a crime he or she committed while in prison. Generally, sentences imposed for in-prison offenses must be served after the inmate has received a grant of parole by the board.

If the Governor reverses a grant of parole, the inmate will be scheduled for a new parole hearing within 18 months from the date of the inmate’s last parole hearing.

If the Governor refers a decision to the full board for en banc review and a vote, the board may affirm the hearing panel’s decision, modify the decision, or order a rescission hearing to determine whether the inmate’s grant of parole should be rescinded. If the board votes to affirm the hearing panel’s decision or to modify the hearing panel’s decision, the inmate will be processed for release by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Some inmates may not be immediately released, such as when the inmate was convicted and sentenced for a crime he or she committed while in prison. Generally, sentences imposed for in-prison offenses must be served after the inmate has received a grant of parole by the board. Others may need to serve additional time if they were granted parole at their first parole hearing and have not yet reached their minimum eligible parole date.

Rescission Hearings

If the full board votes to refer a grant of parole for a rescission hearing, a rescission hearing will be scheduled in about four to six months after the executive board meeting where the rescission hearing was ordered. The purpose of a rescission hearing is to evaluate new information or a fundamental error committed by the granting panel that may indicate that a grant of parole was improper. A rescission hearing is typically conducted by a panel of three, comprised of two commissioners and a deputy commissioner

The inmate is provided an attorney at this hearing and if the rescission hearing is based on new information, the inmate has the ability to call witnesses to provide testimonial evidence. A representative from the district attorney’s office that prosecuted the inmate may attend. Additionally, victims and their family will be notified of the hearing and may attend.

If the hearing panel determines that there is no good cause to rescind or postpone the grant then the inmate will be processed for release by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Alternatively, if the hearing panel does find good cause to rescind the grant, the inmate will not be released and a new parole hearing will be scheduled within a few months.

Advancing an Inmate’s Next Parole Suitability Hearing Date

Before the passage of Proposition 9 in 2009 (known as “Marsy’s Law), inmates serving terms of life with the possibility of parole could be denied parole for one to five years if they were convicted of murder and one or two years if they were convicted of any other offense. One purpose of Marsy’s Law was to eliminate parole hearings in which there is no likelihood the inmate will be paroled. Marsy’s Law accomplished this by changing parole denial lengths to 15, 10, 7, 5, or 3 years.

Included in Marsy’s Law are two provisions allowing an inmate’s next parole hearing date to be moved up if there is a change in circumstances or new information indicating the inmate may be suitable for parole. To implement these two provisions, the board created the “petition to advance” process and the “administrative review” process.

Inmate Petitions to Advance Parole Suitability Hearing Dates

A “petition to advance” is a petition filed with the board by an inmate, in which the inmate requests that his or her next hearing date be moved up, or advanced. The inmate must set forth in the petition the change in circumstances or new information that establishes a reasonable likelihood that consideration of the public safety does not require additional incarceration. Petitions should be submitted by the inmate on a petition to advance form.

An inmate may first file a petition with the board any time after his or her first parole suitability hearing, this includes hearings resulting in the inmate stipulating to being unsuitable. Thereafter, an inmate may submit another petition once every three years. An inmate may not submit a petition to advance the date of his or her first suitability hearing.

Victims and their family who have registered with the Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services will be notified when a petition is filed and will be provided an opportunity to submit a written statement concerning the petition. In addition and upon request, a copy of the petition will be given to them for review and comment. The district attorney's office that prosecuted the inmate will also receive notice when a petition is filed and will be provided an opportunity to submit a statement concerning the petition.

A deputy commissioner will review the inmate's petition and any statements received from victims, victims' families, or the district attorney's office. The deputy commissioner will also review the inmate's institutional records and the decision from the inmate's last parole hearing. The deputy commissioner will determine whether there is a change in circumstances or new information which establishes a reasonable likelihood that consideration of public safety does not require an additional period of incarceration.

If the deputy commissioner denies the petition, the inmate's next parole hearing date will not be advanced. If the petition is approved, the inmate's next parole hearing date will be advanced. The approval of an inmate's petition to advance their next parole hearing date may result in the inmate's next hearing being scheduled within four to six months from the date of the approval, or it may result in a modification of the denial length imposed at the inmate's last parole hearing. For example, if the inmate was denied parole for five years at his or her last parole hearing, the deputy commissioner may order that the denial length be modified to three years, in which case the inmate's next parole suitability hearing will be scheduled to occur three years from the date of the inmate's last parole hearing.

The inmate, victims and the victims' family who received notice of the petition, and the district attorney's office will be notified of the board's decision.

Administrative Reviews to Advance an Inmate's Parole Suitability Hearing Date

Under Marsy's Law, the board has the discretion, after considering the views and interests of the victim, to advance an inmate's next parole suitability hearing if the board finds there is a change in circumstances or new information that establishes a reasonable likelihood that public safety does not require an additional period of incarceration.

The California Supreme Court has stated that the board may direct its staff to review a particular inmate's circumstances at any time to determine if there is a reasonable likelihood he or she is suitable for parole. In addition, the United States Supreme Court has supported parole boards concentrating their efforts on those inmates identified as having a good possibility of being found suitable for parole.

Based on Marsy's Law, as well as California and United States Supreme Court case law, the board implemented a review process to identify those inmates who have a good possibility of being found suitable for parole and reviewing their cases to determine if their next hearing date should be advanced. This process is commonly referred to as the board's “administrative review” process.

Under the administrative review process, an inmate who is denied parole for a period of three years after a parole hearing and who has a low or moderate overall risk rating (as determined by the board's most recent comprehensive risk assessment), will be reviewed one year after his or her parole hearing. The board will review the case and decide whether to advance the inmate's next parole hearing date.

The board will consider whether there has been a change in circumstances or whether there is new information which establishes a reasonable likelihood that public safety does not require additional incarceration. Victims and their family who have registered with the Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services will be notified when an administrative review is being conducted and will be given an opportunity to submit a statement for the board's consideration. In addition, the district attorney's office that prosecuted the inmate will also be notified and provided an opportunity to submit a statement for the board's consideration.

A deputy commissioner will review the inmate's institutional record and the decision from the inmate's last parole hearing. The deputy commissioner will also review any statements received from victims, victims' families, or the district attorney's office. The deputy commissioner will determine whether there has been a change in circumstances or new information which establishes a reasonable likelihood that consideration of public safety does not require additional incarceration. 

If the deputy commissioner denies the petition, the inmate's next parole hearing date will not be advanced. If the petition is approved, the inmate's next parole hearing date will be scheduled to occur about 16 to 18 months from the date of the inmate's last parole hearing.

The inmate, victims and the victims' family who received notice of administrative review, and the district attorney's office will be notified of the board's decision.

Events Before a Parole Suitability Hearing

Generally five to six years before an inmate's first parole suitability hearing, a commissioner, deputy commissioner, or both will meet with the inmate. During this informal consultation, the commissioner or deputy commissioner will explain the parole suitability hearing process and review with the inmate his or her activities and conduct in prison. The commissioner or deputy commissioner will discuss the legal factors relevant to parole suitability and unsuitability, and make recommendations to the inmate regarding his or her work assignments, rehabilitative programs, and institutional behavior. Within 30 days following this meeting, the commissioner or deputy commissioner will issue his or her findings and recommendations to the inmate in writing. Please refer to the board's Consultations Bench Guide for more information about consultations.

Many things have to occur during the months leading up to a parole hearing. Below is a list of procedures and the general timing of when they occur.

Months Before Hearing Procedure

    4-6 months

  • Hearing is scheduled for a particular week
  • Inmate is served with notice of the week the hearing will be held
  • Inmate is served with a Notice of Rights, detailing his or her rights through the parole hearing process
  • Inmate is asked if he or she would like an attorney and an opportunity to review his or her institutional records
  • If the inmate's last risk assessment will be more than three years old at his or her hearing, or if it is the inmate's first parole hearing, the inmate will be interviewed by one of the board's forensic clinical psychologists for purposes of producing a comprehensive risk assessment for the hearing panel to consider

    4 months

  • If it is the inmate's first parole hearing, the inmate's correctional counselor will complete a summary of the inmate's institutional behavior and programming since his or her last admission date
  • Inmate is appointed counsel, if he or she cannot afford one

    3 months

  • The district attorney's office that prosecuted the case, victims, and victims' family members who are registered with CDCR's Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services are notified of the hearing date and location
  • The inmate's attorney at sentencing, the sentencing judge, and the investigating law enforcement agency are notified of the inmate's upcoming parole hearing and provided an opportunity to submit statements to the board for its consideration at the parole hearing

    2 months

  • If requested, the inmate is provided an opportunity to review his or her institutional records
  • The inmate is served with his or her comprehensive risk assessment
  • The inmate's attorney and the district attorney's office are provided access to an electronic copy of the inmate's institutional records

    1-2 months

  • Inmate is served with notice of the date of the scheduled hearing and is asked about any reasonable accommodations he or she may need at the hearing

    1 months

  • Interpreter is hired for the hearing, if necessary

Waiving a Parole Suitability Hearing

No later than 45 days before a parole suitability hearing, the inmate may submit a request to voluntarily waive his or her hearing for any reason. An inmate may waive his or her hearing for one to five years. An inmate may waive his or her hearing up to three times in a row.

When an inmate requests to waive his or her parole hearing, he or she is deemed to have waived his or her right to a parole suitability hearing. Requests to waive a parole hearing should be submitted at the earliest possible date. Requests submitted at least 45 days before a parole hearing are presumed to be valid. Requests submitted less than 45 days before the hearing are presumed to be invalid and will be denied unless the inmate can show good cause and the reason for the waiver request were not and could not reasonably have been known to the inmate more than 45 days before the hearing. If a waiver is submitted and approved, the board will notify any victims, victims' families, and the district attorney's office that received notice of the hearing as soon as possible.

Postponing a Parole Suitability Hearing

The Board of Parole Hearings recognizes that the rights and interests of all persons appearing for a parole suitability hearing are best served when hearings are conducted as scheduled. The board, therefore, makes every effort to avoid postponing a parole hearing once it is scheduled. Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to postpone a parole hearing.

A parole hearing may be postponed due to the unavailability of a hearing panel, missing or untimely documents, notices, or accommodations for an inmate's disability that are required for a parole hearing. In addition, a hearing can be postponed due to exigent circumstances such as illness, natural disasters, or emergencies in the prison.

Inmates may also request to postpone their hearing to resolve matters relevant to their parole suitability hearing. Requests will be approved only if the inmate shows good cause for the postponement and the inmate did not and could not have known about the need for the postponement any earlier than when the request was made.

Hearings that are postponed will be scheduled as soon as possible, usually within four to six months, and all parties entitled to receive notice of the hearing will receive notice of the new scheduled date.

If you need additional information about the board's parole suitability hearings, please write or call the board at:

Board of Parole Hearings
Post Office Box 4036
Sacramento, CA  95812-4036
Phone:  916-445-4072

Victims who would like to request notice and an opportunity to attend an inmate's parole suitability hearing or who would like to request notice of an inmate's release must register with CDCR's Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services. For further information, please visit CDCR's Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services website at: http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Victim_Services/ or call toll-free 1-877-256-6877.

Stipulations to Unsuitability

A stipulation is an agreement between the board and an inmate in which the inmate agrees he or she is not suitable for parole. This means the inmate is requesting to be denied parole without the board conducting a parole suitability hearing. The inmate may offer to stipulate to being unsuitable for parole for a period of 15, 10, 7, 5, or 3 years. The hearing panel will consider statements from hearing participants, including the victim, victim's family, and their representative or attorney before deciding to accept or reject the offer. If the offer is accepted, the inmate will be denied parole for 15, 10, 7, 5, or 3 years and the parole suitability hearing will not occur.