THE PAROLE HEARING PROCESS
The parole hearing process begins five years prior to an inmate’s first scheduled parole hearing when a commissioner or deputy commissioner consults one-on-one with the person to explain the parole hearing process, legal factors relevant to the person’s parole suitability, and to provide recommendations regarding work assignments, rehabilitative programs, and institutional behavior.4 In 2019, the Board conducted 3,877 consultations.
The next step occurs when an inmate is scheduled for a parole hearing. In 2019, the Board scheduled more than 6,000 parole hearings. Parole hearings are conducted by a panel of one or two Board commissioners and a deputy commissioner. The Board is comprised of 17 commissioners appointed by the Governor to three-year terms.5 Deputy commissioners are administrative law judges employed by the Board.
Inmates are entitled to legal counsel at parole hearings. The District Attorney from the prosecuting county may attend and ask clarifying questions and render an opinion regarding suitability.6 Victims of the crime and their family members, as well as their representatives, may also attend and give a statement. Victims are also entitled to have support persons present.7 Victims and their family members are notified of a hearing at least 90 days prior to the hearing if they request to be notified. Victims can request to be notified through CDCR’s Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services.
At a parole hearing, the panel will determine whether the inmate is suitable for release. If an inmate is found to not be suitable for parole, statutory law requires that the inmate’s next hearing be set 15, 10, 7, 5, or 3 years in the future.8 An inmate who is denied parole may submit to the Board a petition to advance his or her next hearing date, based on a change of circumstances or new information that establishes a reasonable likelihood that public safety does not require the additional period of incarceration imposed by the denial length previously issued.9 The Board may also advance an inmate’s next parole hearing date based on new information or a change in the inmate’s circumstances through its administrative review process.10
Parole hearings are held to determine if an inmate currently poses an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released from prison.11 The panel will consider “all relevant, reliable information available to the panel” in determining the inmate’s suitability for parole.12
California Code of Regulations, title 15, section 2281 provides general guidelines the Board considers in determining suitability for parole. 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.13 The panel will also consider whether the inmate suffered from Intimate Partner Battering, formerly referred to as Battered Woman Syndrome, at the time of the crime and whether the crime resulted from the inmate’s victimization.14
The panel also considers evidence suggesting unsuitability. The factors tending to show 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.15 Additionally, the California Supreme Court has held that an inmate’s lack of insight into the causative factors of the inmate’s crime is an appropriate factor to consider in determining whether the inmate is currently unsuitable.16
If an inmate is a qualified youth offender, the hearing panel must also give great weight to the diminished culpability of youth as compared to adults, the hallmark features of youth, and any subsequent growth and increased maturity of the inmate.17 The Board will find a youth offender suitable for parole unless it determines, even after giving great weight to the youth offender factors, that the youth offender remains a current, unreasonable risk to public safety.18
If an inmate qualifies for elderly parole, the panel must give special consideration to the inmate’s advanced age, long-term confinement, and diminished physical capacity, if any, when determining the inmate’s suitability for parole.19
At all hearings the panel is aided in its decision-making by a comprehensive risk assessment prepared by a forensic psychologist with the Board’s Forensic Assessment Division. The Board’s forensic psychologists use the Historical Clinical Risk Management-20 (HCR-20), version 3, the Psychopathy Checklist – revised (PCL-R), and the Static 99-R (for sex offenders) to assess each inmate’s potential risk for future violence.20
If the panel finds the inmate unsuitable for parole, the panel must articulate their decision with evidence supporting their findings. In finding an inmate unsuitable for parole the panel must support their decision by articulating facts that support the conclusion that the inmate continues to pose an unreasonable risk to public safety.
Following a parole hearing, the decision is considered a proposed decision and is subject to review by the Board’s chief counsel. The panel’s decision becomes final “unless the Board finds that the panel made an error of law, or that the panel’s decision was based on an error of fact, or that new information 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.” 21 The Board has up to 120 days following the suitability hearing to conduct a review of the decision.22
California is one of only a handful of states where the Governor has the absolute right to review grants of parole to inmates sentenced to indeterminate sentences. Under Article V, section 8, subdivision (b) of the state constitution, the Governor has executive authority to affirm, reverse, or modify any Board decision to grant or deny parole to a convicted murderer. In all other life with the possibility of parole cases, the Governor is limited to referring the case for review by the Board’s commissioners sitting en banc23 to consider modifying the decision or referring the decision to a hearing panel to determine if the inmate’s grant of parole should be rescinded. When a decision is referred to the Board’s commissioners sitting en banc, it is placed on the Board’s public meeting agenda and any member of the public has the opportunity to give a brief statement on whether the decision should be upheld.
The average length of a parole hearing is two and one-half hours, hearings are scheduled approximately six months in advance to allow for a variety of pre-hearing procedures established to ensure the hearing is complete, fair, and that the rights of everyone who participates are protected. A summary of pre-hearing procedures is included in Appendix A.