Changes are underway to correct attorney preparedness and performance at parole board hearings for men and women serving life sentences in California, according to a survey by Life Support Alliance (LSA).
“We don’t represent this as a conclusive survey, an empirical study of great depth or precise scientific analysis,” LSA stated in its newsletter, Lifer-Line, “but it is interesting and definitely shows some trends and areas of concern.”
LSA reported that more than half of the prisoners who responded to the survey said they “didn’t feel the attorney was prepared to represent them” at their parole board hearing. The reason given was largely because of “the lack of time spent with the client” and reviewing the client’s file.
“Prisoners report that attorneys often meet with them only once prior to the day of the hearing, sometimes only a few days before the hearing, rarely more than the requisite 45 days,” LSA reported. “And those meetings are usually less than 20 minutes, often as brief as 10 minutes.”
During a public comment period at the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) executive board meeting in September, the conclusion of the survey was reported to the BPH at its executive board.
The informal survey presented issues of concern to prisoners serving life sentences. For example, “73% of those responding to the survey were denied parole at their hearing,” LSA reported. It also reported 26% of hearings resulted in findings of parole suitability, and that 1% of the hearings were stipulations to unsuitability, waivers or continuances.
“A prisoner may request to voluntarily waive his or her life parole consideration hearing for any reason, the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Div. 2, § 2253. “Requests shall be made in writing to the board and shall state the reason for the request.”
According to the LSA survey, a lot of the state appointed attorneys who represent prisoners at Board hearings are unprepared and arrive at hearings without required forms and documents mailed to them by their clients. Some attorneys even admit they did not have time to properly prepare or are overburdened with other cases. There are also attorneys “unfamiliar with some of the finer points of parole hearings.” According to LSA, one attorney told a client “I dropped the ball.”
“About a third of the time inmates reported their attorneys, always appointed, recommended they stipulate to unsuitability,” LSA reported, adding that it was troubled by what appears to be an “upswing in this trend,” and that some attorneys advised clients to stipulate “after meeting alone with commissioners.”
LSA did not say, however, that all Board appointed attorneys were ineffective. In fact, “…one state appointed (attorney) got 80% thumbs up rating, spending an average of 90 minutes with her clients,” it was reported.
At least one attorney “told his client to just say what the panel wanted to hear, regardless of whether or not it was the truth,” according to LSA. “We believe the phrase for that behavior is suborning perjury.”
The survey said some private attorneys were no better: for example some of these attorneys who were not prepared or effective were simply not informed. These were attorneys that LSA said were apparently new to parole hearings.Those attorneys probably came from prisoners’ families hiring a “friendly attorney.”
In response to the poor representation, BPH Executive Director Jennifer Shafer, has drafted a new program for state appointed attorneys to better serve their clients. LSA outlined some of the goals of the new program:
• Strengthen the attorney client relationship
• Modifying time frames
• Increasing compensation (pay) to attorneys
For example, under the new program, once an attorney is “hired” by the BPH, he or she will be required to meet with the client within 30 days. A second meeting is required about two weeks before the board hearing.
Compensation will increase from $400 to $750 per client. “And there is a real selection process in the works,” LSA reported, “…not just apply and be lucky at the lottery selection used in past years.”
According to LSA, the BPH will also be working with the Parole and Justice Education Project at Southern California’s Post Conviction Justice Project (PJEP) which “will provide legal training, review and reporting and create what has been termed ‘reasonable expectations of representation.’”
“It bears noting that we do not believe any particular attorney can achieve a grant of suitability for an unprepared inmate, no matter how good the attorney,” LSA stated in its newsletter. “Nor can an inept attorney sink the chances of a well-prepared inmate.”