California Parole Process
California inmates serving indeterminate life sentences, such as 15 years to life or 25 years to life, become eligible for parole consideration once they have served within a year of their Minimum Eligible Parole Date (MEPD). Parole eligibility entitles an inmate to a hearing to determine her/his suitability for parole before a panel comprised of at least one commissioner and one deputy commissioner from the Board of Parole Hearings. During the hearing, the commissioners rigorously examine the inmate’s prior history and commitment offense, disciplinary record in prison, programming and rehabilitation, psychological evaluations and actuarial risk assessments, and plans for release.
The California Penal Code and accompanying regulations require the Board to set a release date for an inmate unless the inmate currently poses an unreasonable risk of danger to the public. Notwithstanding this presumption in favor of parole, the Board currently denies parole to more than 80% of parole-eligible life inmates. Under the Marsy’s Law amendments to Penal Code § 3041, enacted by California voters in 2008, the Board may impose a maximum set off of fifteen years until the next parole hearing, and may not impose less than a three year set off.
If the panel finds an inmate suitable and grants parole, the decision is subject to review by full Board. Absent action by the full Board, an inmate’s grant of parole becomes final 120 days after the hearing and goes to the Governor for his review. California is one of only four states in the country where the Governor has the right to review and reverse grants of parole. In the cases of inmates serving life terms for murder, the Governor has the absolute right to reverse the Board’s decision to grant parole. Governor Schwarzenegger reversed approximately two-thirds of the Board’s grants of parole, but Governor Jerry Brown has been significantly more favorable to inmates seeking parole. The Governor makes his decision based on a review of the written record – the inmate has no right to be present, respond to questions or concerns, or speak on her own behalf.
According to the Stanford Criminal Justice Center‘s report on the parole system for inmates serving life sentences in California, almost 20% of inmates eligible for parole were found suitable in 2010, up from less than 10% in 2007. The report also notes that, while most inmates denied parole in 2010 will have to wait 3 to 5 years before being eligible for parole again, approximately a third of eligible inmates who were denied parole that same year will have to wait 7 to 15 years before their next parole hearing. Finally, the report indicates that the number of reversals of parole by the Governor have diminished, from a 100% reversal rate in 1999 under Governor Davis, to approximately 70% reversal in 2010 under Governor Schwarzenegger.
Petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus
A petition for writ of habeas corpus challenges the constitutionality of an inmate’s imprisonment. In the case of inmates serving indeterminate life sentences, a habeas petition can successfully challenge either the Board of Parole Hearing’s denial of parole or the Governor’s reversal of the Board’s grant of parole where the denial/reversal violates the inmate’s due process rights. Additionally, California permits inmates to file habeas corpus actions challenging the legality of the conditions of their confinement, even when not challenging the underlying confinement itself (e.g., inmates can challenge suitability of their domicile, medical care decisions, or family visiting restrictions). Injunctive relief is the only form of relief afforded successful petitioners, requiring correctional officials to act or cease acting in a certain way. Such relief may result in a reduction in time between an inmate’s parole eligibility hearings or even release from prison.
In 2008, the California Supreme Court issued a landmark decision, In re Lawrence, 44 Cal. 4th 1181, defining the standard for parole suitability determinations and expanding the scope of judicial review of parole decisions. Sandra Davis-Lawrence, a long-time client of the Post-Conviction Justice Project, was found suitable for parole four times, and the Governor reversed each grant of parole based solely on the nature of her 1971 commitment offense. PCJP students filed a habeas petition in the California Court of Appeal challenging the Governor’s 2005 reversal and arguing for the first time that evidence of a Title 15 suitability factor was not sufficient to deny parole – that the law required a finding of current dangerousness. Following full briefing and oral argument in the case, the Court of Appeal granted the writ of habeas corpus. The Attorney General appealed the decision and the Supreme Court granted review in the case. Recognizing Ms. Lawrence’s extraordinary record of rehabilitation, the Court held that a parole denial cannot be based solely on some evidence of an unsuitability factor, not even the aggravated nature of the commitment offense. “It is not the existence or nonexistence of suitability or unsuitability factors that forms the crux of the parole decision; the significant circumstance is how those factors interrelate to support a conclusion of current dangerousness to the public.” Lawrence at 1212.
In re Lawrence (2008 California Supreme Court Case)
Providing relief to victims of domestic abuse
The majority of the 11,000 women incarcerated in California state prisons are survivors of domestic abuse. Hundreds are serving life terms for defending themselves and their children from an abusive partner, or for failing to protect their children from their batterer’s abuse, or for crimes their batterers forced them to commit. Many PCJP clients have been victims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. In those cases, an inmate’s history of abuse is often a relevant consideration in the parole board’s determination of suitability. PCJP students investigate the client’s history of abuse, work with an expert to evaluate the client and explain the effects of intimate partner battering, and present this evidence to the Board of Parole Hearings.
Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA) is the first inmate-initiated and facilitated group in US prison history. CWAA, founded at California Institution for Women in Chino, was instrumental in the passage of the legislation which established the habeas remedy provided for in Penal Code § 1473.5. The documentary film “Sin By Silence” tells the story of CWAA’s important work with inmate survivors of abuse and highlights their involvement in the passage of Penal Code § 1473.5.
For more information on “Sin by Silence,” click here.
Another documentary film, “Crime after Crime,” chronicles the legal battle of Deborah Peagler, a woman brutally abused by her boyfriend, and sentenced to 25 years-to-life for her connection to his murder. After 26 years of incarceration, Deborah found her only hope for freedom when two rookie attorneys with no background in criminal law step forward to take her case. Through their perseverance, they brought to light long-lost witnesses, new testimonies from the men who committed the murder, and proof of perjured evidence.
Filming in and out of prison for over five years, filmmaker Yoav Potash methodically documented this story as it unfolded. With exclusive access to Debbie Peagler and her attorneys, “Crime after Crime” tells the unforgettable story of a relentless quest for justice.
“Crime after Crime” was screened at USC School of Cinematics on October 26, 2011 in the presence of the movie’s director and main characters.
For more information on “Crime after Crime,” click here.