Study explores how lifers get better deal from parole boards

By Wayne Boatwright

For decades, lifers were rarely found suitable for parole. Now more than 20 percent are being paroled.

Why? Thanks to changes at the legal, executive, as well as an initiative petition and administrative levels.

Many more prisoners will now have access to parole because of the passage of Proposition 57 in November 2016. It will likely allow thousands more inmates to go before the parole board.

That’s great news for the men in San Quentin who yearn to go home. Now they just need to understand how to take advantage of the changes.

In this first of three articles, which are based on a ground-breaking Stanford University study published in the April 2016 Federal Sentencing Reporter (Stanford Report), we’ll see how the system works.

Today about 35,000 individuals are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole in California’s prison system. These “indeterminate” life sentences used to be called “life means life” by the incarcerated because few were ever found suitable. The reasons for their “unsuitability” were unclear to the denied. That is because the Board of Parole Hearings’ (BPH) decision-making process and suitability determinations “are largely invisible to the public eye,” according to the Stanford Report.

Fewer than 50 state employees handle the caseload equal to one-third of U.S. inmates serving indeterminate terms.  There are 12 governor-appointed commissioners and 30-plus civil service deputy commissioners. One commissioner and one deputy commissioner preside over each lifer parole hearing.

Before each hearing, the prison prepares a board packet for the BPH hearing participants. This packet includes key documents from the inmate’s central file (C-File), a summary of the applicant’s crime, criminal record, psychological evaluations, post-conviction progress report, and any prior parole decisions.

A lifer inmate’s initial suitability hearing takes place one year before the minimum eligible release date.

There were virtually no parole grants resulting in release prior to two 2008 California Supreme Court rulings. Between 1979 and 2007, less than three percent of all BPH hearings resulted in an inmate being found suitable for parole. The vast majority of these were then reversed by the sitting California governor, according to the Stanford Report.

There were few parole grants even though a BPH hearing begins with a legal presumption that an inmate is suitable for release unless “consideration of the public safety requires a lengthier period of incarceration” (California Penal Code 401(b)).

The process has the board consider 15 factors listed in the California Code of Regulations (CCR), Tit. 15, 2402(a).  Six factors relate to unsuitability for release. They are exceptionally callous life crime, violent history, psychological problems, institutional misbehavior, previous record of violence or sadistic sexual offenses, and the presence or absence of exit plans. The remaining nine demonstrate suitability. They include evidence of remorse, absence of a juvenile record, and stable social history.

The grant rate for lifer inmates has risen dramatically from eight percent in 2008 to 30 percent in 2015.   The increase occurred because the BPH granted more “suitable for parole” rulings.  While the governor revoked a fifth of these, there were still close to 25 percent of those who had a parole hearing in 2015 and earned their freedom.

In future articles, we will consider trends in parole and suitability decisions, and variables that have a statistically significant impact on odds of release.

A copy of the above-mentioned Stanford Report is available through Patten University.


  • Victoria Garrity

    Please keep me posted. My husband falls under SB260 but has been denied parole 3 times by BPH. The most recent time was less than two months ago.


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