There are two general classes of inmates in our California prison system. Inmates sentenced to determinate sentences, such as a term of seven years, serve a finite period of time that has been set by the criminal court and, upon expiration of the sentence, they are released. Inmates sentenced to an indeterminate term, such as life with the possibility of parole, are released only after it is determined that he or she is not a current, unreasonable risk of danger to the public. The Board of Parole Hearings conducts life prisoner suitability hearings to determine whether these inmates are suitable for parole.
Inmates serving life sentences become eligible for parole hearings by statute one year prior to their minimum eligible parole date (MEPD). At the hearing, the panel considers all relevant and reliable information in the individual case in order to determine whether the inmate is suitable for release. If an inmate is found unsuitable for parole, statutory law requires that the next hearing be set 3, 5, 7, 10, or 15 years in the future. An inmate who is denied parole may request that his or her hearing be moved to an earlier date, based on a change of circumstances or new information that establishes a reasonable likelihood that consideration of public safety does not require the additional period of incarceration imposed by the denial length that was issued.
Parole suitability hearings are held to determine if an inmate currently poses an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released from prison. The panel will consider “all relevant, reliable information available to the panel” in determining the inmate’s suitability for parole. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15, § 2281.)
California Code of Regulations, title 15, section 2281 provides a number of factors tending to show both 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.” (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15. § 2281, subd. (d).) Factors tending to show an inmate’s suitability include: (1) lack of a juvenile record, (2) stable social history, (3) signs of remorse, (4) motivation for the crime, (5) lack of criminal history, (6) age, (7) understanding and plans for the future, and (8) institutional behavior. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15. § 2281, subd. (d)(1)-(9).). The panel will also consider whether the inmate suffered from Battered Woman Syndrome or Intimate Partner Battering at the time of the crime and whether the crime resulted from the inmate’s victimization. (Pen. Code § 4801.) After the panel weighs the evidence, they will consider evidence suggesting unsuitability. The factors of unsuitability include the inmate’s (1) commitment offense, (2) previous record of violence, (3) unstable social history, (4) prior sadistic sexual offenses, (5) psychological factors, including the prisoner’s history of mental problems related to the crime, and (6) institutional misconduct in prison or jail. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15. § 2281, subd. (c)(1)-(6).). Additionally, the California Supreme Court has held that an inmate’s lack of insight is a significant factor in determining whether the inmate is currently unsuitable. (In re Shaputis II (2011) 53 Cal.4th 192.)
While the California Supreme Court has found that the Board’s “discretion in parole matters has been described as ‘great’ and ‘almost unlimited’,” if the panel finds the inmate unsuitable for parole, the panel must articulate their decision with evidence supporting their findings. (In re Rosencrantz (2002) 29 Cal.4th 616.) In finding an inmate unsuitable for parole based upon static factors such as the crime or the inmate’s criminal history, the panel must support their decision by showing “some evidence” that “those facts support the ultimate conclusion that an inmate continues to pose an unreasonable risk to public safety.” (In re Lawrence (2008) 44 Cal.4th 1181.) Upon finding that an inmate does not pose an unreasonable risk to society and is therefore suitable for parole, the panel will set a release date in accordance with guidelines set forth in Penal Code section 3041.
Who Participates in the Hearing?
The hearings are conducted by a Commissioner, who is appointed by the Governor and subject to Senate Rules Committee confirmation, and a Deputy Commissioner, who is a civil servant employee of the state. Inmates are entitled to legal counsel at their hearings. The District Attorney from the prosecuting county may ask clarifying questions and render a statement on the question of parole suitability. The victims of the crime and/or their representatives may attend the hearing and address the panel with their comments on suitability and/or the impact of the crime.
Any person may submit information to the Board of Parole Hearings concerning any inmate or parolee. Written comments should be directed to the Classification and Parole Representative at the prison where the hearing will be conducted. Those comments will be included in the inmate’s or parolee’s Central File and will be considered by future hearing panels.
What Happens to a Parole Decision?
Once a decision is final, generally after the 120-day decision review period, the Governor has statutory authority under Penal Code sections 3041.1 and 3041.2 to review parole suitability decisions. Up to 90 days prior to a scheduled release date of an inmate, the Governor may request that the Board review its panel’s decision. When such a request is made, the matter is placed on the Board’s public meeting agenda and the public has the opportunity to give a 5-minute statement on whether the Board’s hearing decision should be upheld. If an inmate was convicted of murder, the Governor may reverse or modify the Board’s decision without referring it back to the Board for review.