A lifer hearing is a hearing conducted by the California Board of Parole Hearings to determine whether an inmate sentenced to an indeterminate term (such as life with the possibility of parole) is suitable for parole. Inmates are entitled to representation by an attorney at the hearing, and the prosecutors and victims from the commitment offense are entitled to be present and to be heard.
Crimes that may lead to an indeterminate sentence in California include:
- murder, per Penal Code 187,
- aggravated kidnapping, per Penal Code 207, and
- some instances of arson, per Penal Code 451.
Factors the BPH will consider when determining whether an inmate is eligible for parole include:
- the circumstances of the crime for which the inmate was given the indeterminate sentence,
- the inmate’s level of remorse for the crime, and
- the inmate’s behavior in prison (both positive and negative).
A recent California court decision ruled that inmates serving indeterminate sentences for non-violent third-strike offenses are now eligible for parole consideration. This ruling is a new parole law in California as these offenders were not eligible for parole prior to the ruling.
Sometimes after the BPH determines that it will grant an inmate parole, it changes its mind. This process is known as parole rescission.
The standard for rescinding parole is the “some evidence” standard. The parole board must simply have “some evidence” that the facts or circumstances are such that even though it at one time believed parole was appropriate, it no longer does.
Once placed on parole supervision, a “parolee” must abide by certain conditions and requirements. The failure to do so will result in a California parole revocation hearing. Some conditions include:
- agreeing to live in designated county limits,
- agreeing to register with local authorities, and
- consenting to be searched at any time without a California search warrant.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will explain the following in this article:
- 1. What is the legal definition of a lifer hearing?
- 2. What happens at a lifer hearing?
- 3. What is the California Board of Parole Hearings?
- 4. What does the parole board look at?
- 5. What are some factors that may make an inmate unsuitable for parole?
- 6. What about indeterminately-sentenced nonviolent offenders?
- 7. Do victims have rights during lifer hearings?
- 8. What is parole rescission?
- 9. What are parole conditions and requirements?
- 10. Who serves on parole boards?
- 11. How do I contact the California parole board?
1. What is the legal definition of a lifer hearing
Inmates sentenced to an indeterminate term (such as life with the possibility of parole), are released on parole only after it is determined that they are suitable for release. The Board of Parole Hearings conducts life prisoner suitability hearings, or “lifer hearings,” to determine whether these inmates are suitable for parole.
An indeterminate prison sentence should be compared with a determinate sentence. An indeterminate sentence is for an indefinite amount of time, like “25 years to life.” A determinate sentence is for a specific period of time, like “10 years.”
In general, if a determinate sentence is given, the inmate must be paroled at the conclusion of the sentence.
With an indeterminate sentence, an inmate becomes eligible for parole when:
- he has served any determinate part of the sentence, or
- he has served seven years in state prison, if the sentence is purely indeterminate.
2. What happens at a lifer hearing?
When an inmate (serving an indeterminate sentence) becomes eligible for parole, he is given a tentative hearing date for a parole suitability hearing. The hearing is then automatically set one year prior to an inmate’s minimum eligible parole date.1
The fact that an inmate automatically receives a parole hearing doesn’t mean he will automatically receive parole. It has to be determined at the lifer hearing whether the inmate is suitable for parole.
“Suitable” means that the inmate does not pose too great a threat to public safety.2 If found suitable at the lifer hearing, the inmate gets paroled.
The inmate is entitled to an attorney at the hearing to help convince the board that he is ready to be paroled. The D.A. usually attends the hearing as well, either supporting or opposing parole.
3. What is the California Board of Parole Hearing?
The California Board of Parole Hearings conducts California parole lifer hearings. This board is responsible for deciding who is released on parole and for determining the conditions of parole for those they find eligible.
4. What does the parole board look at?
In order to determine whether an individual is ready for parole, the board considers eligibility factors that include (but are not limited to)3:
- all of the circumstances of the “commitment offense” (the crime for which the inmate was given the life sentence),
- the inmate’s level of remorse for the crime,
- the inmate’s behavior in prison (both positive and negative),
- the inmate’s involvement in in-house counseling and/or treatment programs,
- psychological and counseling reports,
- the inmate’s parole plans (how the inmate plans to re-enter the community — where he/she will live and work, how he/she plans to remain productive, sober, etc.), and
- input from the victim, the victim’s family members, and/or any other representatives speaking on the victim’s behalf.
5. What are some factors that may make an inmate unsuitable for parole?
When the BPH determines whether to grant or deny parole, public safety is supposed to be its primary consideration. Just as it takes the above factors into consideration as to why an inmate should be paroled, it also considers factors that weigh against parole.
Some of the factors that may render an inmate unsuitable for parole include (but are not limited to)4:
- the fact that the crime was committed in a particularly cruel or heinous manner,
- the inmate has an unstable social history,
- the inmate has a prior record for violence, and
- that the inmate has engaged in serious misconduct while in prison.
Please note that unless the board determines that these factors outweigh public safety, the board is required to parole those life inmates who are now eligible for parole.5
6. What about indeterminately-sentenced nonviolent offenders?
A recent California court decision ruled that indeterminately-sentenced nonviolent offenders are eligible for parole.6 This ruling is a new parole law in California as these offenders were not eligible for parole prior to the ruling.
To be considered an “indeterminately-sentenced nonviolent offender,” the offender must be sentenced to an indeterminate term and must meet the following criteria:
- not condemned to death,
- not serving life without the possibility of parole,
- not serving a sentence for a violent felony as defined by California Penal Code 667.5,
- not serving a determinate term prior to beginning a life term for a violent felony,
- not serving a term for a nonviolent felony after completing a concurrent determinate term for a violent felony,
- not currently sentenced for a violent felony for an in-prison offense,
- has not completed an indeterminate term and is currently serving a determinate term for an in-prison offense.7
The state parole board estimates 3,000 to 4,000 nonviolent third-strikers could be affected by the court decision.
7. Do victims have rights during lifer hearings?
On November 4, 2008, voters passed “Marsy’s Law“. This law expanded the rights of victims of crime in criminal, juvenile, and parole proceedings. With respect to California board parole “lifer” hearings, Marsy’s Law addresses the following8:
- it requires the Board of Parole Hearings to listen to the entire and uninterrupted testimony of the victim, victim’s family, and victim’s representatives,
- it allows victims, a victim’s family, and the victim’s representatives to attend parole board hearings without being questioned by the inmate or his/her attorney, and
- it requires the board to consider a victim’s safety in determining whether to grant, deny, or rescind parole.
Learn more about victim notification at California’s Office of Victim & Survivor Rights & Services.
8. What is parole rescission?
Sometimes after the BPH determines that it will grant an inmate parole, it changes its mind. This process is known as parole rescission. Sometimes the board initiates a parole rescission, and sometimes it’s the governor who initiates the process.9
The standard for rescinding parole is the “some evidence” standard. The parole board must simply have “some evidence” that the facts or circumstances are such that even though it at one time believed parole was appropriate, it no longer does.10
Reasons that parole may be rescinded include:
- disciplinary conduct by the inmate while incarcerated,
- psychiatric deterioration of the inmate, and
- any new information that indicates that parole would be a public safety concern.11
9. What are parole conditions and requirements?
Once placed on parole, a “parolee” must abide by certain conditions and requirements. The failure to do so will result in a parole revocation hearing.
Some of the most common parole terms include (but are not limited to):
- consenting to be searched at any time with or without a California search warrant and with or without cause,
- agreeing to live within designated county limits,
- agreeing to register with local authorities (this applies to those who are required to register as sex offenders pursuant to California Penal Code 290 PC, to those who have been convicted of California Penal Code 451 PC arson, and to those who are convicted of certain California drug crimes), and
- conditions that relate to the specific offense, including, for example, restrictions that prohibit
- using or being around designated weapons,
- accessing the Internet (usually a condition imposed on those convicted of violating California’s child pornography laws), or
- associating with gang members.
The board will revoke parole from an inmate who refuses to agree to his/her parole terms. Under these circumstances, the inmate will remain in prison for a maximum of six months.12
10. Who serves on parole boards?
11. How do I contact the California parole board?
The BPH can be reached at:
Board of Parole Hearings
Post Office Box 4036
Sacramento, CA 95812-4036
For additional help…
If you or someone you know is serving an indeterminate sentence in California and are eligible for a lifer hearing, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7.
- California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (cdcr.ca.gov)
- California Parole Hearing Schedules
- Clemency and Pardons, Office of the Governor (California)
- Victim Services Unit, California Department of Justice
- California Penal Code 3041 PC.
- In re Hudson (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1.
- In re Ross (2009) 170 Cal.App.4th 1490.
- In re Rosenkrantz (2002) 29 Cal.4th 616.
- In re Dannenberg (2005) 34 Cal.4th 1061.
- In re Edwards (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 1181.
- Proposition 57: Indeterminately-Sentenced (Third Striker) Nonviolent Parole Process FAQ.
- Victims’ Bill of Rights Law 2008 – Marsy’s Law.
- See In re Rosenkrantz at 659.
- In re Powell (1988) 45 Cal.3d 894.
- In re Fain (1976) 65 Cal.App.3d 376.
- California Penal Code 3060.5 PC.