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The California Lifer Parole Process

The California Lifer parole process is complex, heavily discretionally and very often frustrating to both prisoners and their families. Families want to be supportive and helpful but often can't understand why their prisoner isn't coming home, despite exemplary institutional behavior, letters of support and years, even decades, in prison.


THE GOOD NEWS: the two-prong battle of being granted a date by the Board of Parole Hearings, and then successfully weathering a governor's review, has now largely been reduced to a single hurdle of being found suitable by the parole board, as Governor Brown has clearly expressed his intention to, by in large, not intervene in parole board decisions.  

The not so good news: it often still seems to be a roll of the dice as to whether or not that date will be granted and if not granted, the possible length of denials can be much harsher, thanks to Marsy's Law

To set the stage, it is important to note that while parole grant rates are not at the level we would like to see or believe the law mandates them to be, the numbers are improving.  From a dismal low of only.03% in 1995 to about 16% the first quarter of 2011 the grant rates are rising.  And, with Brown staying out of the mix and more and more of former Gov. Schwarzenegger’s reversals being overturned by the courts, this is the time for lifers to be ready when that window of opportunity opens for them.


There are no sure fire answers to how to be found suitable, but there are some actions both lifers and their families can do to make the chances of receiving a date from the board more favorable.


The two most important points for any lifer and their family are these:

Don't give up hope.  Parole is possible and in more and more cases, it is happening.

Be realistic about the time and work needed to successfully gain a date.  You probably won't get a date on your first, second or maybe even third hearing, nor can you simply stay discipline free and just do your time.  There is work involved, and it's up to the lifer to get it done.

We will not, in this summary, address all the things lifers must do within the institutional process to prepare themselves for parole, such as no write-ups, self-help classes, positive chronos and the like.  What we will try to offer are suggestions lifers and family members can work on in conjunction with these institutional goals and in cooperation with each other.

Although every board attorney we spoke with felt the chances of attaining a date increased with good legal representation at the hearing 

There are some very good state-appointed attorneys in the system, but it is the luck of the draw for any individual lifer on which attorney is appointed to represent them at a hearing. So, if you and your family can afford to hire an attorney, strongly consider it.


  If not, do every single thing you can find and think of to show the board your suitability.

The only standard in the law to be granted parole is to show the prisoner is not a CURRENT danger to society.  However, the path to that finding is left largely to the "discretion" of the parole board commissioners.  By in large the commissioners look to a short list of items they feel show suitability or lack thereof.


1. The life crime.  Although the board, by court decision, can no longer use the crime alone as a reason for denial, nearly all denial decisions mention the "heinous" or "cold" or "cruel" nature of the crime.

2. Lack of "remorse" or "insight" into how the prisoner came to commit the crime. This finding is often based on the psychological evaluation given to all lifers.

3. Lack of sufficient self-help or rehabilitative programming.

4. Insufficient or incomplete parole plans.


These items are used, often in varying combinations, as a reason to find prisoners are still an unreasonable danger to society and thus deny parole.  The courts have held that a "modicum," or smallest, of provable deficiency in any of these areas is enough for the board to be allowed to find a prisoner unsuitable.  So each area must be addressed and dealt with.

The Life Crime Details


1. Many attorneys advise their clients not to discuss the life crime at the hearing, but to stipulate to the facts on the record. There is no requirement to discuss the crime with the board.  Some attorneys also feel stipulating to the facts shows the ultimate taking of responsibility and may also take much of the heat out of the District Attorney's usual anti-parole rant.  Be prepared to discuss all other aspects of parole at the hearing, but avail yourself of the right not to discuss the crime.


2. If you do make the decision to discuss the life crime at the hearing, practice doing so ahead of time, so it is not unfamiliar territory on hearing day, as with most things, practice always helps.


3. Be prepared to discuss any prior criminal history or record prior to the life crime.  

Juvenile incidents are fair game for the hearing board and little if anything is ever really expunged from the record.

Insight, Remorse, Responsibility


1. Insight, the board's latest buzz word, has two parts: contributing factors and responsibility.  

If substance abuse or anger issues figured in the life crime you must admit to the contributing factors but stress it was not drugs/alcohol/anger that caused the crime, but your decision to indulge in these behaviors.  

Whatever the contributing factors, the ultimate responsibility for the crime lies with the inmate and must be accepted.


2. Expressions of remorse or amends must be genuine.  

These need to be in your own words, not stock phrases and words memorized from self-help programs or books.


3. Currently, letters of remorse and amends should be written to the victim(s) and/or families, whether they are ever received or not.   Life Support Alliance is working together with other stakeholders to develop an Accountability Letter Bank process.  Stay tuned for updates.


4. Write out your statement for the board, and don't be afraid to read it.  

You lose no points for reading rather than memorizing the statement and reading it will insure you cover all the issues 

you want to in the way you want to.






1. If you have not already started participating in any and all self-help programs available, START NOW.  

AA and NA programs are helpful not only for substance issues but can be used by all prisoners to 

show serious dedication to rehabilitation.  

Use the 12 steps to show how you deal with issues other than substance abuse.  

Document your progress through the steps; try to find a sponsor, even an inmate who has already been through the steps.


2. Go beyond GED; correspondence courses, if possible, Use self-study books on all subjects, books on how to write resumes, social skills, parenting, relationship building.


3. Do book reports on books read, but not your high school book report.  

These should be meaningful reports showing how the steps or lessons in the books relate to your situation 

and how you will use and apply them in your life.  

Books on victims’ experiences and recovery can be used to understand and exhibit empathy.


4. If causative factors were present in the life crime (addictions, anger) the board will consider those factors are still present and will want to see how you have learned to deal with them.


5. Repair fractured relationships.  Part of making amends and insight is to reach out to family and friends who may have been hurt by your past behaviors and initiate repair of those relationships.  Be sure to address how the crime impacted others in your family and the community at large.


6. Consider a private psychological evaluation.

Parole Plans

1. While a confirmed job is not a legal requirement to be found suitable and may in fact not be attainable for some lifers, show due diligence in seeking employment.  

Prepare a resume, show research into likely jobs in your parole area.  

Letters of intent from employers are very useful, even offers of employment in your family’s business.  

The board is interested in seeing you have a plan for providing yourself with the funds needed for living.


2. Have a relapse prevention plan.  

Know where and when support groups meet in your parole area, who to contact for help with emergency 

finances, housing, and counseling.

A sponsor from AA/NA to carry over from prison into outside life is good. 


3. Have short term and long term plans; to show the board you realize reintegration is a process, not just getting out of prison.  

Short term plans can include obtaining identity cards, Social Security cards, and enrolling in school.


4. Don't marry to help your parole plans, but if that event is in your plans anyway a spouse can provide evidence 

of a stable relationship and support on the outside.


5. Be sure your parole plans are solid and realistic.

The board can and does sometimes check on letters of support and offers of assistance.  

Don't allow your plans to be discounted because they are vague or not verifiable.

The Extra Effort

1. Re-read your past transcripts, with an eye to how you are perceived by the board and others. 

Ask family members to review them also to help you with perspective.


2. Body language is important. 

Read up on this, observe others and take a close look at yourself.


3. Your attorney will be the best guide on how to handle and relate to victims and/or their relatives, if they appear at your 

hearing (known as VNOK hearing).


4. If you are denied, begin the process of appeal right away; also begin right away to plan for your next hearing.

Tasks for families:

1. You will be your prisoner's confident, legal aide, research assistant, material supplier and financial backer.  

You must be supportive, persistent and resourceful.


2. The most important thing you can do is maintain to contact with and support and love for your prisoner.

Solid family backing and support as well as assistance in developing parole plans are the best help you can be.


3. Letters of support are vital and will be addressed in a separate section. 

It is crucial the letters be updated for each hearing and be original, signed documents.


4. Hiring an attorney and/or psychologist for a private evaluation should be considered, if at all possible.


5. You will be the prisoner's eyes and ears on the outside, helping with finding job offers, locations of self-help rehabilitative 

groups (AA/NA) and when they meet.


6. Help find and provide books on self-help, correspondence education courses, even books for book reports as addressed above.


7. Help with short and long term parole plans, education enrollment, finding and securing medical assistance and any benefits 

the prisoner may be entitled to on release, these can include VA benefits, SS payments and documentation. 

Check with the California Controller’s unclaimed funds website; a surprising number of inmates have monies owned them 

being held by the Controller’s unclaimed funds division.

While these funds can’t be sent to someone in prison, they can be accessed once a prisoner is released and can often 

be several hundred dollars.  

These funds are from unclaimed checks, wages, bank accounts, insurance settlements and the like the prisoner 

may have been owed but not collected prior to incarceration.


8. Read transcripts with an unbiased eye and communicate your feeling to your prisoner. 

Prisoners would do well to come exude sincerity and maturity, not cockiness and attitude.


9. Contact, contact, contact.

Letters, phone calls, visits are the best way of demonstrating to the board and your 

prisoner that you will be there to support them.


Support Letters

Letters of support from friends and family are a vitally important part of a prisoner's parole packet.


However, these need to be carefully crafted, meet certain requirements and be sent to specific locations.


This is not the time to plead to let Jimmy or Janey come home and promise they will never be in trouble again.


As one parole commissioner said, this is the same family the prisoner had when he/she got in trouble, so just saying they want the 

prisoner home doesn't mean much in terms of rehabilitation and non-recidivism.


Letters should be sent approximately 6 months prior to the parole hearing.


They must be updated for each parole hearing, must be original documents and signed. If not signed, they will not be considered valid.


Send all letters, as well as confirmation of other support, such as job offers, to the lifer desk at the prison housing the lifer, with copies to the prisoner, to the attorney and to the prisoner's counselor at the prison.


Form letters, petitions or letters from those who don't really know the prisoner are of no use.  


The board will often call the letter writers to be sure they did, indeed, write the letter and know something about the inmate.  


Bogus letters are worse than no letters.


Try to keep letters to one page and specific as to what support you can offer and for how long you are prepared to offer that support, 

bullet point for clarity.


Your letter should address your relationship with the prisoner, how he/she has grown as a person, what impact he/she has had on your life.

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