What happens at a parole hearing?
Learn who is present at parole hearings, what happens during a hearing, and what topics are discussed and why.
People Who Might Be Present
The following people can attend the parole hearing:
- Victim/survivor participants (who have been approved by OVSRS) – find more information on what the categories below mean here.
- Direct victim(s)
- Victim’s “next of kin”
- Victim’s immediate family
- Up to 2 representatives per direct victim or “next of kin”
- Up to 1 support person per direct victim, “next of kin,” or family member
- Up to 1 attorney may appear in place of each direct victim, “next of kin,” or family member
- The incarcerated person being considered for parole
- The incarcerated person’s attorney
- A “Panel” of one or two Commissioners and one Deputy Commissioner from the California Board of Parole Hearings (Board)
- Correctional officers (who are present, but don’t participate)
- Possibly the district attorney from the county where the crime was committed as a representative of the “People”
Note: District attorneys are not present at every hearing. Victims/survivors can find out from the District Attorney’s Office before the hearing if they are sending a representative.
- Occasionally observers (like students or researchers), and in rare cases a media reporter, but ONLY with prior approval from the Board
- A language interpreter for the incarcerated person (if needed)
- Person designated as an ADA accommodation for the incarcerated person (if needed)
Flow of Proceedings
Each hearing is different, and how hearings occur can change over time. But hearings generally include the following:
If victims/survivors are participating in the hearing, some Panels take a moment to speak with them prior to the hearing to answer questions and let them know what will happen during the hearing. This does not happen in every case.
At the beginning of the hearing, Panels spend a short time on administrative matters. They announce the case, briefly explain the law and the proceedings, and go over the rules for the hearing. They also ask all participants to identify themselves and spell their last name. For victims/survivors, the Panel also asks them to state their relationship to the victim. The Panel “swears in” the incarcerated person, whose testimony at the hearing is under oath. The Panel also covers any preliminary legal objections or Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) issues. The Panel may also describe the rules that apply when victims/survivors are present – that is, that the incarcerated person is not allowed to look at or speak to victims/survivors, and that both the incarcerated person and victims/survivors should direct their comments to the Panel.
The Panel spends most of the hearing asking the incarcerated person questions about a wide range of topics that may include their childhood, their criminal record, the crime, their conduct in prison, their rehabilitation, and their plans for release. More information about these topics and why they are covered is available here.
Every hearing is different, but the Panel will ask questions that help them decide whether the incarcerated person is currently dangerous. More information about how Panels make decisions is available here.
Both the district attorney (if present), and the attorney representing the incarcerated person, may ask the incarcerated person additional questions. The district attorney is not allowed to ask questions directly; instead, they suggest questions to the Panel, and the Panel decides whether to require the incarcerated person to answer.
The district attorney (if present) may give a closing statement. In some cases, the district attorney’s closing statement will discuss the details of the crime in depth. The district attorney’s closing is usually limited to 10 minutes.
The attorney representing the incarcerated person may then give a closing statement. The attorney’s statement is usually limited to 10 minutes.
The incarcerated person may give a closing statement, which must be directed to the Panel and must be respectful toward all participants.
Victims/survivors speak last at the hearing. Generally, there is no time limit, and they usually are permitted to speak uninterrupted for as long as they wish. All comments must be directed to the Panel and must remain respectful. Of course, participants can and often do express strong emotions, which is perfectly appropriate and acceptable. But Panels are required to interrupt the hearing if any participant becomes aggressive, disruptive, or disrespectful to the hearing process.
Note: Transcripts of parole hearings are public documents. This means that anything shared at the hearing will be included in full in the public hearing transcript. The victim/survivor’s full name will be included in the transcript (unless the person is the direct victim of a sexual assault and has requested, in advance, not to use their real name).
After the Panel has heard from all participants, the Panel takes a break and “deliberate” privately. During deliberation, the Panel decides whether to grant or deny parole. More information about how the Panel makes its decision is available here.
While the Panel deliberates, victims/survivors attending the hearing in person wait in a waiting room; victims/survivors attending by video wait for the Panel to rejoin the video hearing.
The Panel will then return and share their decision. If victims/survivors do not want to attend the decision portion of the hearing (or if they want to have the option not to attend), they can request that the Panel inform them of its decision before announcing the decision at the hearing.
The Panel will either “grant” or “deny” parole.
- When the Panel grants parole, they often use the words:
- “We find that [name] does not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” or
- “We find [name] is suitable for parole”
- When the Panel denies parole, they often use the words:
- “We find that [name] does pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” or
- “We find [name] is not suitable for parole”
The Panel will briefly explain the decision. No other participants are able to make comments.
If the Panel denies parole, they will announce the length of time before the incarcerated person can have their next hearing. The potential denial periods are 3, 5, 7, 10, or 15 years.
In some cases (rarely), the Panel members do not agree on whether to grant or deny, or they agree to deny parole but disagree how long the denial should be. This is called a “split decision, and will require additional review. More information about split decisions is available here.
Decisions at parole hearings are not final, and a person granted parole at a hearing will not be immediately released. Parole decisions undergo a lengthy review process, and in some cases victims/survivors can participate in that review. Information about what happens after a parole hearing is available here.
After the Panel announces and explains the decision, the hearing will end without any more discussion. No participants can make additional statements, and there is no follow-up by the Panel with any participant.
We encourage victims/survivors to reach out for resources and support that are available to them. More information is available here.