What is parole?
Learn what "parole" means and where parole comes from.
The word "parole" can mean different things.
Parole can mean a person’s release from prison (as in, “the person paroled”).
Parole can mean the process of seeking release from prison through a parole hearing before the California Board of Parole Hearings (as in, “the person had a parole hearing”).
Parole can also mean a period of supervision, after a person is released from prison, while they are living in the community (as in, “the person is on parole”).
The information on this website is focused on the parole hearing process in which the California Board of Parole Hearings (Board) decides whether to grant or deny release on parole.
Parole eligibility is determined by California sentencing and parole laws. Judges must follow the sentencing laws when imposing a sentence for a crime. The Board must follow parole laws when conducting hearings and making parole decisions.
Types of Sentences
Under California law, there are two primary types of sentences that a person who is convicted of a crime can receive:
- A “determinate” term (a set number of years), or
- An “indeterminate” term (a minimum term with a possible maximum of life, like 15-years-to-life or 25-years-to-life)
The type of sentence a person receives determines how that person can be released from prison.
A person with a “determinate” term is sentenced to a specific number of years (for example, 5 years or 12 years).
They will be released from prison on a definite future release date, which is called the “Earliest Possible Release Date” or EPRD. The EPRD can change to an earlier date due to “credit” earning, which takes time off the sentence for “good behavior” and/or participating in rehabilitative programming.
A person with a determinate sentence does NOT have to go through the parole hearing process to be released – their release is automatic once they reach their EPRD. However, some people sentenced to very long determinate terms may be eligible for earlier release through the parole hearing process.
An “indeterminate” sentence means a person is sentenced to a number of years “to life” – for example, 25-years-to-life is a common sentence for a person convicted of murder in California.
After the person serves the minimum term – for example 25 years on a 25-years-to-life sentence – minus any credits for good behavior and/or rehabilitative programming, they are eligible for release through the parole hearing process.
Indeterminate sentences are called “life” sentences, and people with these sentences are often called “lifers.” This can be confusing because people with these sentences are NOT actually sentenced to serve their entire life in prison. While they could potentially serve the maximum of life in prison, their sentences include the possibility for parole. Indeed, if someone has an indeterminate sentence, the judge chose NOT to impose (or could not impose) a true “life” sentence (that is, life without the possibility of parole, or “LWOP”).
Although people with indeterminate sentences are eligible for release, they are NOT guaranteed release. They will only be released if they can demonstrate that they no longer pose a danger to society.
Once a person with an indeterminate sentence serves their minimum term, they can appear before the California Board of Parole Hearings (Board) to be considered for release from prison at a “parole hearing.” They cannot be released from prison unless the Board concludes that they are no longer dangerous. If a person with an indeterminate sentence is never granted parole by the Board, they will remain in prison for the rest of their life.
Why do people with indeterminate sentences have parole hearings?
Indeterminate sentences have two components – punishment and rehabilitation. Once a person has served their minimum sentence (punishment), the person is eligible for release on parole if they can demonstrate they have changed and can safely be released to the community (rehabilitation). Indeterminate sentences are designed to encourage and incentivize people to rehabilitate during incarceration such that they will not create any other victims or cause further harm.
California laws and sentencing judges determine the minimum punishment period – the amount of time (or “term”) that a person must serve in prison before they are eligible for release through a parole hearing. After the person has served the minimum term, the person will be released on parole if, and only if, they show they have rehabilitated and can safely be released.
The purpose of a parole hearing is to determine “suitability” for release – that is, whether the person can safely be released to the community. The Board must follow the judge’s sentencing decision and the laws that set parole eligibility. The focus of the hearing is NOT on whether the person has been sufficiently punished. Instead, the purpose of the parole hearing is to determine whether the person has demonstrated meaningful change such that they no longer pose a risk of danger to society.
If a person is serving an indeterminate sentence, the law and the sentencing judge determined that, based on their crime, they did NOT need to be incarcerated for the rest of their life to be sufficiently punished. Instead, according to the law and the sentencing judge, after the minimum punishment period imposed, the person deserved an opportunity to be released from prison if they could demonstrate they were no longer dangerous.
Why do people with determinate sentences have parole hearings?
People with determinate sentences have a definite release date. This means they can be released from prison without having a parole hearing, regardless of their behavior in prison or level of rehabilitation, and without having to demonstrate they are safe for release.
However, some people with definite release dates have the opportunity to earn earlier release through the parole hearing process, if they can show they are no longer dangerous. In these cases, the person with the determinate sentence will enter the parole process and start having parole hearings. If they are able to show they are not dangerous, and they are granted parole, they can be released from prison before they reach the definite release date at the end of their determinate sentence. If they do not succeed in the parole hearing process, they can be released once they reach the end of their determinate sentence, without having a parole hearing or showing they are not dangerous.
The primary circumstances in which a person with a determinate sentence becomes eligible for the parole process is when they qualify for a Youth Offender Parole Hearing or an Elderly Parole Hearing. In these cases, California created special parole processes either because it was determined that some lengthy determinate sentences were unconstitutionally harsh, or because it determined that some lengthy determinate sentences were not necessary to protect the public. More information about these kinds of hearings is available below.
Do people sentenced to death or LWOP have parole hearings?
In California, most people sentenced to the death penalty or life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) do not become eligible for the parole hearing process.
There are three exceptions:
- Due to a 2017 change in law, most incarcerated people who were originally sentenced to LWOP, for a crime that occurred when they were 16 or 17 years old, are eligible for release through the parole hearing process.
- Incarcerated people who were originally sentenced to the death penalty or LWOP may be able to go back to court and be resentenced to a parole-eligible sentence in limited circumstances.
- Incarcerated people who were originally sentenced to the death penalty or LWOP may receive a commutation from the Governor to a parole-eligible sentence.
Note: It is uncommon for a person with the death penalty or LWOP to have their sentence commuted.
In these types of cases, if a person becomes parole eligible, it is because either a court, or the Governor, or the Legislature determined that their original sentence was improper.
Youth Offender Parole and Elderly Parole
Youth Offender Parole Hearings
Based on recent neuroscience research of adolescent brain development, the United States Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court have both recognized that juveniles are less culpable than adults and have a greater capacity for growth and maturity.
Following these cases, the California Legislature created the Youth Offender Parole process.
The Youth Offender Parole process establishes parole eligibility, after serving a minimum of 15, 20, or 25 years, for many people who were convicted and sentenced for crimes that they committed as youth (25 years and younger). More information about the Youth Offender Parole process is available on CDCR’s website.
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. These youth factors are also considered by the Board’s forensic clinical psychologists who prepare Comprehensive Risk Assessments (CRAs). More information about youth factors is available here.
Elderly Parole Hearings
The Elderly Parole process originated as part of a court-ordered remedy to address overcrowding and substandard medical care in California prisons. Recognizing that the risk of committing a violent offense decreases with age, the court and later the California Legislature approved elderly parole eligibility. More information about the Elderly Parole process is available on CDCR’s website.
Incarcerated people may be eligible for the Elderly Parole process if they have reached age 50 and served a minimum of 20 years, or if they have reached age 60 and served a minimum of 25 years, depending on the circumstances. At Elderly Parole Hearings, the Panel conducting the hearing is required to give “special consideration” to a person’s advanced age, long-term confinement, and diminished physical condition. These elderly parole factors are also considered by the Board’s forensic clinical psychologists who prepare Comprehensive Risk Assessments (CRAs). More detail about the elderly parole factors is available here.