What topics are discussed and why?
The Panels that conduct parole hearings consider a wide range of topics in making parole decisions.
Every parole hearing is different, but the discussion at the hearing may cover the following:
Case Factors / Social History
The Panel will consider the incarcerated person’s history leading up to the crime that resulted in incarceration. They may discuss the person’s:
- Family and home environment
- Educational history
- Social history
- Criminal history
- Work history
- Relationship history
- Painful or traumatic events, such as poverty; physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; bullying; neglect; abandonment; exposure to violence; or racism
- Other details of the person’s life before the crime
The Panel may ask how experiences in the incarcerated person’s early life affected them, and how the experiences contributed to the person’s choice to engage in criminal behavior. There may be particular focus on childhood trauma in Youth Offender Parole Hearings (more information is available here). The Panel may also ask about the incarcerated person’s prior criminal history or prior behavior that was “antisocial” (that is, harmful or damaging to others).
One way that Panels evaluate whether a person is currently dangerous is by exploring the person’s understanding of their past criminal choices. Often, traumatic experiences from a person’s early life can lead to negative feelings, and ultimately negative behaviors, that contribute to the decision to commit crimes and harm others.
The Panel understands that past traumatic experiences do not excuse the criminal choices. But if the incarcerated person understands how they were impacted by past traumatic experiences (this is often referred to as having “insight”), and if they have developed different and healthy ways to cope with negative experiences, this helps assure the Panel that the person will not make the same damaging choices again. From the Panel’s perspective, if a person does not understand what led to their prior criminal behavior, they are more likely to repeat that behavior in the future. Thus, the Panel wants to know if the person understands the “risk factors” that were present in their life before the crime.
The Panel also is interested in whether the incarcerated person is willing to speak honestly about, and take responsibility for, past criminal and antisocial behavior. Because the Panel must decide whether the person is a current danger, criminal behavior from the past (on its own) does not show the person should be denied parole; but, if the person minimizes that past behavior, or refuses to discuss it honestly, this can suggest to the Panel that the person has continued “criminal thinking,” and that their past behavior is still relevant to who they are today. Also, if the person is untruthful about their past negative choices/behavior, the Panel is less likely to believe they are truthful when they speak about their rehabilitation and positive change.
The Crime (or “commitment offense” or “life crime”)
The hearing will almost always include a discussion about the crime that the person is incarcerated for. The crime may be discussed at length, and in great detail.
Under California law, incarcerated people appearing for parole hearings have the right to NOT discuss the crime. The Panel cannot deny parole based solely on the person’s refusal to discuss the crime. In those cases, the Panel will not ask questions about the facts of the crime, but they may ask questions related to the crime based on the facts in the record. It is rare for an incarcerated person to elect NOT to discuss the crime.
The hearing is NOT a retrial. The Panel relies on the facts contained in underlying court documents, and the Panel will not reconsider the incarcerated person’s conviction or the factual findings of the court in the case. However, in some hearings, the incarcerated person might maintain they are innocent of the crime, or that the crime did not occur as provided in the record. The Panel cannot deny parole based solely on a person’s innocence claim or their claim of factual discrepancy. But the person must be able to provide a “plausible” explanation for their claim, and the Panel will ask the person about this. The Panel will also likely discuss any other criminal or antisocial conduct that the person does admit.
The Panel is legally required decide if the incarcerated person is a current risk to public safety. Because the crime likely occurred many years in the past, under California law, the Panel cannot deny parole based solely on the seriousness of the crime and its impact on the victims/survivors. But there are several reasons the Panel is interested in discussing the crime with the incarcerated person.
First, the Panel wants to know if the incarcerated person is willing to be honest about the crime and take responsibility for their actions. If the person minimizes their past behavior, or refuses to discuss it openly, this can suggest that their past behavior is still relevant to who they are today. When a person is unwilling to be accountable for their past damaging choices, from the Panel’s perspective, this makes it more likely that they will make those choices again in the future. Also, if the person is untruthful about their past negative choices/behavior, the Panel is less likely to believe they are being truthful in discussing their rehabilitation and positive change.
Second, the Panel wants to know if the incarcerated person understands why they committed the crime – this is often referred to as having “insight.” From the Panel’s perspective, if a person does not understand what led to their prior criminal behavior, they cannot effectively address those issues, and they are more likely to repeat the behavior in the future. Thus, the Panel wants to know if the person understands the “risk factors” that were present in their life before the crime, and how those factors contributed to their choice to commit crime.
Third, the Panel wants to know if the incarcerated person is remorseful for the crime, and has made a sincere effort to understand and appreciate the impact of the crime. For the Panel, if the incarcerated person genuinely regrets their past harmful actions, they are less likely to repeat those actions in the future.
Discussions of the crime can be painful and even traumatizing for victims/survivors. For some victims/survivors, it is too painful to hear about, and relive, what happened to themselves or their loved one. Others have questions about what happened, and feel that being present for this discussion can give them information that will help bring a sense of closure.
Victims/survivors have many different options for how to participate in a parole hearing, and whether to be present for a discussion of the crime. More information about these options is available here.
Note: The discussion of the crime may not be limited to a portion of the Panel’s questioning of the incarcerated person; the district attorney’s closing statement may also include details of the crime.
The Panel may discuss all aspects of the incarcerated person’s life in prison, both good and bad. Some of these aspects may be well documented in the person’s prison file, while the Panel may have to ask the incarcerated person about others. The topics may include:
- Educational or vocational achievements
- Work history
- Gang involvement or violent behavior in prison
- Disciplinary violations or other behavior that is “antisocial” (that is, damaging or harmful to others)
Serious and administrative disciplinary violations may be referred to as “rules violations reports” (RVRs) or “115s.” Counseling-only rules violations (where the person receives a warning, but is not disciplined) may be referred to as “128s” or “custodial counseling chronos.”
- Substance use history
- Rehabilitative programming and what the incarcerated person learned from it
- Personal, internal rehabilitative work
- Positive comments about the incarcerated person from CDCR staff
The Panel’s primary consideration in deciding whether the grant parole is who the person is today and whether they have changed from the time of the crime. Many aspects of the incarcerated person’s time in prison may be relevant to this.
First, the Panel is interested in any rehabilitative efforts the incarcerated person has made. These may involve taking formal rehabilitative programs at the prison, or completing “correspondence courses” (provided by nonprofits via mail) that the incarcerated person completes on their own. Both of these activities may be referred to as “self-help.” It is NOT sufficient for a person to simply complete programs; Panels are specifically looking at whether the person “internalized” the program – that is, they have used the information they learned to change who they are and how they live. The Panel may ask many questions about what a person learned from self-help programming they completed, and how they apply it in their daily life. The Panel is also interested in personal rehabilitative pursuits the person has engaged in – for example, purposeful reading, meditation, journaling, service work, yoga, creative or artistic endeavors, and any other therapeutic or healthy activities.
From the Panel’s perspective, all of these forms of rehabilitation are relevant to evaluating whether the incarcerated person is dangerous today. Many self-help programs can help a person gain “insight” – that is, understanding why they made harmful choices in the past – such that a person is aware of and can address those choices. Many programs and other activities help the incarcerated person develop healthy life skills and “coping tools” they can use to respond to difficult or stressful situations. All of this can assure the Panel the person has changed and has the skills they need to safely return to society.
The Panel also is interested in whether the incarcerated person is willing to speak honestly about, and take responsibility for, past criminal and antisocial behavior and disciplinary violations in prison. Many people had very negative, violent conduct and lots of disciplinary violations when they first arrived in prison. Often, this changes over time as the person grows older and rehabilitates. Because the Panel must decide whether the person is a current danger, harmful behavior from the past (on its own) does not show the person should be denied parole. In looking at negative past behavior, the Panel is trying to find out if the person has changed, or if those negative behaviors still characterize the person today. The Panel wants to know if the person admits their past behavior, takes responsibility for their past behavior, understands why they committed those actions, and can show that they have addressed those issues and learned more healthy ways to cope with negative situations. These things can show the Panel that the person has changed, and that they are unlikely to commit the same negative acts in the future.
The Panel is interested in the incarcerated person’s day-to-day behavior. To the extent a person’s current behavior reflects prosocial tendencies, nonviolence, the ability to use coping skills and avoid relapses into negative behavior, and respect for rules and authority figures, this suggests that the person is not currently dangerous. To the extent the person’s current behavior reflects violence, disrespect for rules, and continued negative choices, this suggests a person is currently dangerous.
Panels also look at education and vocational/work history. If someone has academic achievements, vocational certificates, or even just a positive work history, this can show the Panel they have marketable skills and a good chance of getting a job on release. This can show the Panel that the person is more likely to be stable once they reenter society, and thus pose a lower risk.
These achievements can also show Panels that the person is committed to a positive lifestyle, and that they are willing and able to work hard at prosocial activities. This can show the Panel that the person has changed from who they were at the time of the crime, and that they are more likely to be stable and successful if released.
Panels also look very closely at documented statements about the person from CDCR staff. CDCR staff members are in a unique position to comment on a person seeking parole – they see the person day in and day out; they are specially trained to know if the person is engaging in negative behavior; and often, they have known the person for many years and can speak to whether they have seen the person change. Panels often give a lot of weight to statements made by CDCR staff.
Kyla/Trino/Commissioner Sharrieff: “They could be the same person you saw 20 years ago…there's also a huge possibility that they're an entirely different person…”
Commissioners Barton/Sharrieff: “Programming has to be more than just sitting in a seat, getting a memo saying that you attended…”
Panels will ask the incarcerated person about their plans for life if they are released from prison. This includes:
- Where they plan to live
- Plans for employment
- Plans for how to avoid past negative behavior
- Available support systems they intend to rely on
Panels want to know if the incarcerated person’s release plan is realistic and if they have the prosocial family, friends, and community support they will need. The Panel wants to be sure that the person will be stable when they are released, so they will be less at risk of turning to crime. The Panel wants to know that the person is aware of their risk factors and has specific plans to avoid people and situations that put them at higher risk of negative behavior.
Comprehensive Risk Assessments (CRAs)
The Panel will discuss the incarcerated person’s “Comprehensive Risk Assessment” (CRA). A CRA is an assessment by a licensed psychologist (also called a “clinician”) from the Board’s Forensic Assessment Division.
The clinician reviews the incarcerated person’s entire prison file, and conducts a clinical interview that is often multiple hours long. The clinician often discusses many topics that are also covered at the parole hearing. Based on this review and interview, the clinician evaluates the incarcerated person’s level of risk, using evidence-based evaluation tools. Each CRA will conclude whether (in the clinician’s professional opinion) the incarcerated person would pose a low, moderate, or high risk of violence if released.
The Panels that conduct hearings are not bound by the clinician’s conclusions – that is, they can review a case and disagree with the clinician about the person’s likely level of risk. But Panels often give CRAs a lot of weight and rely on them heavily at parole hearings.
Most people appearing for parole hearings receive CRAs regularly, so there may be more than one CRA in the incarcerated person’s file. There may also be other psychological evaluations that are not called “CRAs,” although these are likely to be older.
CRAs provide expert opinions about the legal determination the Panel must make – that is, whether the incarcerated person poses a potential risk for future violence.
If there is more than one CRA, the Panel will likely focus on the most recent. In some instances, the conclusions in a CRA may be outdated.
Special Considerations in Parole Hearings
In every case, the Panel must decide if the person seeking parole is a current danger. In making this decision, there are some factors the Panel is required to consider only in specific cases.
Youth Parole Factors
At Youth Offender Parole Hearings, the Panel conducting the hearing is required to give “great weight” to special factors related to youth and adolescent brain development – commonly referred to as the “youth factors.” Under California law, the Panel must give “great weight” to: (1) the diminished culpability of youth as compared to adults, (2) the hallmark features of youth, and (3) any subsequent growth and increased maturity of the incarcerated person.
There are many “hallmark features of youth” that may be discussed at the hearing. These include:
- An underdeveloped sense of responsibility
- Impulsivity and failure to think before one acts
- Increased vulnerability to negative influences and outside pressures, particularly from family members or peers
- Recklessness and thrill-seeking
- Limited ability to escape damaging, negative, or criminogenic environments
- Enhanced ability to change
The focus of a Youth Offender Parole Hearing is the fact that characteristics of a young person are inherently subject to change as the person grows and matures. In deciding whether the person seeking parole is dangerous, in these cases, the Panel will assess whether the antisocial tendencies the person showed as a young person were the result of a permanent and inherent criminal disposition, or instead were “transient” features of the person’s youth.
Elderly Parole Factors
At Elderly Parole Hearings, Panels are legally required to give “special consideration” to the incarcerated person’s advanced age, long-term confinement, and diminished physical condition, if any.
It is well established that a person’s risk of violence decreases as the person ages. At Elderly Parole Hearings, the Panel must give “special consideration” to how the particular person’s age affects their likely risk of violence. The Panel might consider evidence of a person’s physical/medical conditions that render them unable, or less able, to commit violence.