In-person appearances before the Board of Parole Hearings for suitability appear to be a thing of the past. Instead, audio-video hearings are likely to become permanent, Life Support Alliance reports in their February 2022 newsletter.
In California, thousands of incarcerated people with life sentences who seek freedom by going before the Board can no longer participate in-person as they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Board commissioners initially approved the video-based hearing as a temporary measure given the social distancing needed for COVID-19.
At first, the Board commented on the importance of having attorneys and interpreters present in-person. However, the COVID-19 pandemic overrode these considerations, and now, the practice has proved preferable to the Board.
However, some San Quentin’s residents disagree.
“When we were in person, it was more of an intimate setting,” said San Quentin resident, Raymond T. Estrada, 49. “Now because we’re behind the screen, it does not feel intimate. What I mean by this is it’s because of the human contact that makes me feel human. Behind the screen, I don’t feel the connection.”
According to the newsletter, the Board Commission determined that people who cannot establish effective communication using the audio-video system would still be given the opportunity to participate in-person during their hearings.
The Executive Director of the Board, Jennifer Shaffer, recognizes that this new method has not been popular with incarcerated people. However, this new method does not appear to have impacted the rates of suitability granted by the Board. In 2019, before the implementation of audio-video hearings, the percentage of people who were found to be suitable for parole release was 34 percent. In 2020 it was 36 percent, and in 2021 it was 34 percent.
Shaffer also mentioned this measure reduces stress for the candidates while generating considerable fiscal savings and allowing more flexibility in contracting commissioners.
“I have participated in my suitability hearings in person and I always get nervous,” said SQ resident Jose Lopez, 49. “I find it difficult to express myself because of my nerves.”
People like Lopez who have been incarcerated for decades often suffer from anxiety and nerves when being questioned by the commissioners and trying to explain the reasons why they committed their offenses, and why they will not re-offend.
Since it was implemented, the audio-video hearings have invited greater participation by victims and their families. Such participation increased by an average of 270 percent. This increase is due to the fact that people can participate in the hearings from their homes and don’t have to deal with the expense of travel or the potential stress of being present with the offender.
However, DA offices as well as an organization called Victims Next of Kin Advocacy Camp, which represents those impacted by crime, expressed their opposition to the audio-video format for hearings. This was primarily due to requirements that victims’ families register 30 days before the hearing and that surviving victims register 15 days before. In spite of this, these regulations have not decreased the number of victims and victim representatives at the hearings.
Recording hearings is prohibited, and unauthorized people or organizations connecting to the audio-video feed is also prohibited, stated the newsletter.