Parole is similar to probation in that a convicted person serves a portion of the sentence outside of jail or prison. Probation, however, is a part of the sentence that a court imposes while parole is a process available only to felons who served time in state prison and takes effect only when the defendant is released. Both are supervised programs.
A parole board determines if a prisoner is to be paroled after he/she becomes eligible. The board comprises of at least one commissioner and one deputy commissioner from the board. All prisoners, unless given a sentence of life without parole or pose an unreasonable risk of danger to the public, must be assigned a release date.
Eligibility depends on the sentence imposed and if “good time credit” will be applied. If you were given a specific prison time or determinate sentence, then you are automatically eligible within one year of your Minimum Eligible Parole Date (MEPD). For those serving life sentences, you must serve the determinate portion of your sentence before becoming eligible though you must persuade the parole board to grant you parole. If your sentence was 15 years to life, then the 15 years must first be served. Only adult inmates sentenced to life in prison or an indeterminate term with the possibility of parole may have a parole hearing.
Inmates are allowed to deduct time for good behavior. Under current California law, inmates are now eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence. The exception is if you committed a violent or serious felony (rape, first degree burglary, robbery, arson, kidnapping, etc.), you must serve 85% of your sentence before becoming eligible. If you committed murder or have been incarcerated for at least 2 felonies, you are not eligible for good time credit.
In any case under California law, the parole board is required to grant parole unless the prisoner still constitutes a risk to public safety. This applies even in determinate sentencing cases or where the inmate has garnered good time credit.
If parole is granted, the decision goes to the full parole board for review. If no action is taken, the inmate’s parole is granted 120 days after the hearing but it then goes to the governor who can reverse the board’s decision if the offense was murder. The governor can also override the parole board’s decision to not grant parole if the inmate appeals.
If parole is granted and not reversed by the full board or governor, parolees are assigned a parole agent before being released. They must report to the agent on a periodic basis, often weekly at first and then monthly, to discuss their progress in finding employment, attending school or participating in certain programs. A parolee may not leave the jurisdiction without permission of the parole agent or change residence or jobs without advance notice.
The duration of the parole period is usually no more than 5 years or 10 years for sex offenders if the inmate received a life sentence. Those convicted of first or second degree murder with a term of life imprisonment are on parole for the remainder of their lives.
If you are eligible for parole, the parole board must determine if you are rehabilitated enough to re-enter society and pose no risk to public safety. Some of the factors that a parole board considers include:
- The severity of the underlying offense
- Motivation for committing the crime
- If the crime was committed in a particularly heinous way
- Whether the sentencing judge made any parole recommendations
- Whether the inmate violated prison rules and regulations
- Efforts made toward rehabilitation such as degrees earned, mentoring, treatment and other activities
- Signs of remorse
- History of violence
- Psychological evaluations
- Inmate’s lack of insight
- The victim’s attitude toward paroling the inmate
- The chances the inmate will be successful in integrating into society (family, job, community support)
There are certain general conditions of parole that must be followed along with special conditions related to the particular offense or criminal history. The general conditions that California parolees must follow include:
- A parole agent or police officer may search you or your property at any time without a search warrant
- You may not leave the state without permission
- You waive extradition if found outside of California
- Report to parole agent one day after your release from jail or prison
- Report your residence and work address to the parole agent
- Report your new residence to the parole agent in advance of moving
- Report within 3 days of any change in job
- Follow your parole agent’s written and verbal instructions
- You must request and receive a travel pass if you leave the state
- You must request and receive a travel pass if you leave the county for more than 2 days
- Immediately advise your parole agent if you receive a ticket or are arrested
- You may not use, be around or possess any firearms or bullets
Specific conditions may be no contact with a victim or victim’s family or that you may not come within a certain distance (100 yards) of the victim’s residence or place of employment. Another might be a restriction in using the internet or to not associate with known gang members.
The role of the victim in parole hearings was significantly changed in 2008 with the passage of Marsy’s Law, or the Victim’s Bill of Rights. Pertaining to parole matters, the law effectively eliminated parole hearings for certain convicted murderers who have no chance of obtaining parole. For anyone convicted of murder, they may have a parole hearing no more than once every 3 years and may be denied a follow-up parole hearing for as long as 15 years.
Victims may attend the parole hearing or designate someone to appear though they must notify the Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services that they or a representative wish to attend. If the victim is deceased, then an immediate family member may attend. The parole board will usually allow two family members to speak about their feelings regarding the granting of parole to the inmate.
At the hearing, the parole board must abide by the following:
- Listen to the uninterrupted testimony of the victim or victim’s family or representative
- The victim or family representative may not not be questioned by the inmate or attorney
- Consideration of the victim’s or victim’s family’s safety in determining whether to grant parole
Whether a victim’s testimony influences a parole board’s decision is debatable since few victims consent to parole of someone who caused them physical or psychological harm despite an inmate’s exemplary behavior while incarcerated, sincere expressions of remorse and efforts at reform.