Explanation of California Parole Law


People often confuse the terms probation and parole. Probation is part of the sentencing that a person receives when convicted.  Imposed by the judge, it either reduces or eliminates the time that a defendant must spend in custody.  Depending on the circumstances, either the court or a probation officer monitors the defendant's compliance with his/her probation terms.1

Parole too is a supervised program. But it applies only in felony cases where a person is sent to California state prison. And doesn't take effect until after the person's release from prison.

Once "paroled", the inmate agrees to abide by certain terms and conditions.2When an inmate is paroled depends on his or her sentence.

Inmates who are sentenced to the California state prison for a specific amount of time (referred to as a "determinate sentence") are automatically placed on parole once they are released.

Inmates who are sentenced to state prison for potential life sentences (for example, 25 years to life) are eligible for parole after they serve the determinate part of their sentence.but only after the parole board determines that they are ready to "re-enter" society.  That determination takes place during a California Board of Parole suitability (Lifer) hearing.

Just prior to being placed on parole, an inmate is assigned to a parole agent.  One of the parole agent's responsibilities is making sure that the parolee complies with the terms and conditions of his/her parole.  A violation of any of those parole conditions can lead to a California parole violation and revocation hearing.

As former prosecutors and law enforcement officers, we understand first-hand how these proceedings work and how to help you with any issues related to the California parole system.

In an effort to help you better understand the complexities involved with California parole law, our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys3 will address the following topics.

(Click on the title below to proceed directly to that section)

1.  An Overview of the Parole Process
2. Types of Parole Supervision
3.  Parole Conditions and Requirements

If, after reading this article, you would like additional information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

You may also find helpful information in our related article on California Probation Law and Probation Violation Hearings.

1.  An Overview of the California Parole Process

California parole is a supervised program that takes place when inmates re-enter the community after being released from prison.  Sometimes parole is automatic. Other times it is not.

For life inmates who are eligible to receive parole, it is granted once the parole board (known as the Board of Parole Hearings) determines an inmate to be ready for release.  Inmates who were sentenced to "life without the possibility of parole" are not entitled to this privilege.

The history of California parole law

For the most part, California has a mandatory parole system.  This means that unless public safety presents an overriding concern, inmates who are eligible for parole must be paroled once they serve their sentence. Eligible parolees are supposed to be paroled unless they present an overriding public safety risk. (What constitutes an “overriding public safety risk” is very discretionary and very open to interpretation.) Prior to 1977, that wasn't the case.

It used to be that one's prison sentence really had no bearing on parole eligibility.  Parole boards were more concerned with an inmate's efforts at criminal rehabilitation than they were with an inmate's punishment.  As a result, the board hardly ever set parole dates.4

Displeased with this process, the California Legislature determined that the purpose of incarceration should be punishment.  They believed this philosophy would be best served by having the inmate serve a sentence proportional to the offense.and in proportion to others who had committed similar offenses.5

Once an inmate has served that sentence, he/she must be paroled unless public safety requires further incarceration.a policy that is still enforced under today's California parole law.  Even those inmates who have been sentenced to an indeterminate sentence (such as 15 years to life -- also referred to as a life sentence) must be paroled once they serve the numeric or "determinate" part of their sentence (in this example, "15") unless public safety overrides that policy.6

However, the date that someone is eligible for parole varies a great deal, depending on (1) the crime for which the inmate was convicted, and (2) when the inmate was convicted.

Factors for parole eligibility

Parole eligibility depends primarily on (1) what type of sentence the inmate received, and (2) how "good time credit" will be applied to that sentence.  Let's explore these issues.

Determinate sentences

A "determinate" California State Prison sentence is a sentence for a specific number of years.  If, for example, you are sentenced to "six years in prison", the number six is the determinate number.

Indeterminate sentences

An "indeterminate" California State Prison sentence is an indefinite sentence.  An example of an indeterminate sentence.also called a "life sentence".is 25 years to life.  "25" is the determinate part of the sentencing; "life" is the indeterminate.

Occasionally a judge will sentence a defendant to "life with the possibility of parole".  When this is the case.which is really an older method of sentencing.there is no determinate part of the sentence.  Under these circumstances, the minimum eligible parole date is typically seven years into the sentence.

Good time or work time credit

With little exception, inmates are entitled to earn "good time credit" (sometimes referred to as "work time credit") while in prison.  This credit allows inmates who behave while in prison the opportunity to serve only part of their sentences.

It used to be that inmates could earn enough good time credit so that they only had to serve half of their determinate sentence before they could be released on parole.  However, California parole law changed to require inmates to serve two-thirds of their determinate sentences before being paroled.  Currently, however, due to budget cuts and prison overcrowding, the state is back to allowing "day for day" credit, which allows parole after serving only half a sentence.7

That said, inmates convicted of California violent felonies must serve 85% of their sentence before becoming parole eligible.8 Examples of California "violent felonies" include crimes such as

There are two classes of inmates who are not eligible to earn any good time credit12:  (1) those who were convicted under Penal Code 187 California "murder" law13, and (2) those who have been previously convicted of and incarcerated for two or more felonies.  Individuals who fall under these categories must serve their entire determinate sentences before being paroled.

All that said, an inmate will only be paroled when the state is convinced that the inmate is ready to return to society.  These standards simply set the earliest time the parole board will consider release.

California parole laws are always changing

California parole law is ever-changing.  When a new law goes into effect, it doesn't usually affect those who were convicted under a previous statute. Rather it gets applies "prospectively" to "future" inmates.  This is why when you are convicted is an important consideration in understanding your minimum eligible parole date.

For example, some laws specifically state that they only apply to prisoners who were convicted or incarcerated before 1983, and some only to prisoners who were incarcerated or convicted after 1977.  This is one reason why it is important to consult with a criminal defense attorney who has expertise in California parole law to ensure you are receiving the parole privileges to which you are entitled.

In its most current effort to improve parole supervision and reduce the recidivism rate (that is, the number of parolees who go on to commit new crimes), the California Department of Corrections (who is responsible for overseeing the state's parole system) launched a new parole program at the end of January 2010.

The new program, signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger in October 2009, has three goals14:

    1. reducing recidivism by encouraging inmates to complete rehabilitation programs by offering more substantial "good time credit" for completion of certain programs such as inmate firefighting,
    2. improving supervision of high-risk parolees,
    3. "High-risk" parolees include (but are not limited to): sex offenders, those who committed violent felonies, and those who are heavily involved in gang activity. Improving supervision of high-risk parolees will be accomplished in two ways: (a) by hiring more parole officers to help lessen caseloads, and (b) by implementing new programs for managing lower-risk parolees, such as expanded drug and mental health treatment programs to ensure repeat offenders will receive help rather than incarceration.
  1. partnering with the community to supervise parolees who commit minor violations (so that they are sent to local community correction centers rather than state prison).

If successful, California's state prison population will be reduced by about 6,500 inmates over the next year.

∗It should be noted that California parole law is specific to state crimes.  The federal system utilizes a "supervised release" program which is governed by federal sentencing guidelines.15

2. Types of California Parole Supervision

There are currently six levels of parole supervision that the Department of Corrections utilizes.  The intensity of supervision may be increased or decreased at any time, depending on (1) the needs of the parolee, and (2) community safety.  These levels include:

  1. intensive re-entry -- provides enhanced supervision immediately upon re-release into the community,
  2. regular re-entry -- provides services such as employment and housing for parolees immediately upon re-release into the community, but for a shorter period of time,
  3. specialized caseloads -- provides concentrated, intense services to "high risk" parolees,
  4. case management supervision -- once a parolee has demonstrated that he/she has successfully re-integrated into the community, he/she will receive less supervision,
  5. electronic supervision -- if necessary, a 24-hour electronic monitoring system may be implemented for enhanced supervision, and
  6. subsistence and personal care -- provides transition services such as parenting education, cash, clothing, and transportation services upon community re-entry.

Note that under the "non-revocable parole program," certain parolees will not attend California parole revocation hearings. Individuals who are placed on non-revocable parole will only be returned to prison if they are arrested for a new offense…and only if they are convicted of that offense in the same manner as any other criminal defendant.

In addition, parolees on the non-revocable parole program don't report to a parole officer. They do, however, remain subject to warrantless searches by the police.

Parole agents

Parole officers (also commonly referred to as parole agents) are in charge of all of these types of parolee supervision.  Their assignment is to (1) protect the public, by (2) assisting parolees with their re-entry into the community.  Hired by the state, they work directly for the Department of Corrections.

Parole agents report directly to the Board of Parole Hearings.  They prepare plans and recommendations for their "clients" prior to release.  They also help their parolees arrange for services such as

  • employment,
  • housing,
  • medical care and counseling services, and
  • social activities.

If the parolee is accused of violating parole, the parole officer investigates the allegations.  After doing so, the agent makes a recommendation to the parole board either to (1) allow the parolee to remain on parole, or (2) revoke parole and reincarcerate the individual.

Parole length

Once an inmate is placed on parole, the length of supervision depends, once again, on the crime for which he/she was convicted.  Average parole terms are about three years, although some are five, and some are ten.16 Those convicted of murder will be placed on parole for life17, although even that parole law will have exceptions.18

And -- like everything else related to California parole law -- the time periods for parole supervision are always subject to change.

3.  California Parole Conditions and Requirements

Once placed on parole, a "parolee" must agree to abide by certain conditions and requirements.19 Some of the most common parole terms include (but are not limited to):

If the inmate refuses to sign and acknowledge the fact that he/she will abide by his/her parole conditions, the board will revoke its offer of parole.  Under these circumstances, the inmate will remain in prison a maximum of six more months.24

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If you or a loved one is in need of help with paroles and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

Our Nevada criminal defense attorneys have law offices located in Las Vegas and Reno and are available to represent you at Nevada parole board and violation hearings as well.25

Additional Resource:

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation --
Addresses various issues presented by California parole law

Legal References:

1California Penal Code 1203 -- Probation.  ("(a) As used in this code, "probation" means the suspension of the imposition or execution of a sentence and the order of conditional and revocable release in the community under the supervision of a probation officer. As used in this code, "conditional sentence" means the suspension of the imposition or execution of a sentence and the order of revocable release in the community subject to conditions established by the court without the supervision of a probation officer. It is the intent of the Legislature that both conditional sentence and probation are authorized whenever probation is authorized in any code as a sentencing option for infractions or misdemeanors.")

2California Penal Code 3000 -- Parole.  ("(a)(1) The Legislature finds and declares that the period immediately following incarceration is critical to successful reintegration of the offender into society and to positive citizenship. It is in the interest of public safety for the state to provide for the effective supervision of and surveillance of parolees, including the judicious use of revocation actions, and to provide educational, vocational, family and personal counseling necessary to assist parolees in the transition between imprisonment and discharge. A sentence pursuant to [California Penal Code] Section 1168 or 1170 shall include a period of parole, unless waived, or as otherwise provided in this article.")

3Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys have offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier.

4In re Dannenberg (2005) 34 Cal.4th 1061, 1077.  ("For decades before 1977, California employed an "indeterminate" sentencing system for felonies. The court imposed a statutory sentence expressed as a range between a minimum and maximum period of confinement-often life imprisonment-the offender must serve. An inmate's actual period of incarceration within this range was under the exclusive control of the parole authority, which focused, primarily, not on the appropriate punishment for the original offense, but on the offender's progress toward rehabilitation. During most of this period, parole dates were not set, and prisoners had no idea when their confinement would end, until the moment the parole authority decided they were ready for release. (See People v. Jefferson (1999) 21 Cal.4th 86, 94-95, 86 Cal.Rptr.2d 893, 980 P.2d 441 ( Jefferson ); Cassou & Taugher, Determinate Sentencing in California: The New Numbers Game (1978) 9 Pacific L.J. 5, 6-16 (Cassou & Taugher).)")

5See same at 1078.  ("("The DSL [that is, determinate sentencing law], adopted in 1976, largely abandoned this system. The DSL implemented the Legislature's finding that "the purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment," a goal "best served by terms proportionate to the seriousness of the offense," with provision for sentence "uniform[ity]" for similar offenses. (1170, subd. (a)(1).) Under the DSL, most felonies are now subject, in the alternative, to three precise terms of years (for example, two, three, or four years, or three, five, or seven years). The court selects one of these alternatives (the lower, middle, or upper term) when imposing the sentence. (1170, subds.(a)(3), (b); see Jefferson, supra, 21 Cal.4th 86, 95, 86 Cal.Rptr.2d 893, 980 P.2d 441.) The offender must serve this entire term, less applicable sentence credits, within prison walls, but then must be released for a further period of supervised parole. (3000, subd. (b); see Cassou & Taugher, supra, 9 Pacific L.J. 5, 26.)")

6See same at 1070.  ("Construing the pertinent statute, Penal Code section 3041,FN1 the court ruled that once an indeterminate life prisoner reaches minimum parole eligibility, the Board must set a fixed date for parole release, pursuant to the principle of "uniform terms" for crimes of similar gravity, and with due regard for the statutory minimum term for the inmate's offense, unless it finds the prisoner's crime "particularly egregious" in comparison to other offenses of the same class.")

7 California Penal Code 2933 -- Work time credits.  ("(a) It is the intent of the Legislature that persons convicted of a crime and sentenced to the state prison under [California Penal Code] Section 1170 serve the entire sentence imposed by the court, except for a reduction in the time served in the custody of the Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation pursuant to this section and Section 2933.05. (b) For every six months of continuous incarceration, a prisoner shall be awarded credit reductions from his or her term of confinement of six months. A lesser amount of credit based on this ratio shall be awarded for any lesser period of continuous incarceration. Credit should be awarded pursuant to regulations adopted by the secretary. Prisoners who are denied the opportunity to earn credits pursuant to subdivision (a) of Section 2932 shall be awarded no credit reduction pursuant to this section. Under no circumstances shall any prisoner receive more than six months' credit reduction for any six-month period under this section.")

8California Penal Code 2933.1 -- Violent felonies; worktime credit.  ("(a) Notwithstanding any other law, any person who is convicted of a felony offense listed in subdivision (c) of Section 667.5 [violent felonies] shall accrue no more than 15 percent of worktime credit, as defined in [California Penal Code] Section 2933.")

9California Penal Code 261 PC -- Rape.  Rape is defined as non-consensual sexual intercourse.  Penal Code 261 PC defines a variety of situations under which rape may be charged.

10California Penal Code 460 -- First-degree burglary.  ("(a) Every burglary of an inhabited dwelling house, vessel, as defined in the Harbors and Navigation Code, which is inhabited and designed for habitation, floating home, as defined in subdivision (d) of Section 18075.55 of the Health and Safety Code, or trailer coach, as defined by the Vehicle Code, or the inhabited portion of any other building, is burglary of the first degree. (b) All other kinds of burglary are of the second degree.")

11California Penal Code 288 -- Lewd acts on a minor under 14.  ("(a) Any person who willfully and lewdly commits any lewd or lascivious act, including any of the acts constituting other crimes provided for in Part 1, upon or with the body, or any part or member thereof, of a child who is under the age of 14 years, with the intent of arousing, appealing to, or gratifying the lust, passions, or sexual desires of that person or the child, is guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for three, six, or eight years. (b)(1) Any person who commits an act described in subdivision (a) by use of force, violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury on the victim or another person, is guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for three, six, or eight years. (2) Any person who is a caretaker and commits an act described in subdivision (a) upon a dependent person by use of force, violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury on the victim or another person, with the intent described in subdivision (a), is guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for three, six, or eight years.")

12California Penal Code 2933.2 -- Murder; worktime credit.  ("(a) Notwithstanding Section 2933.1 or any other law, any person who is convicted of murder, as defined in Section 187, shall not accrue any credit [towards early California parole], as specified in Section 2933 or Section 2933.05.")

See also California Penal Code 2933.5 -- Persons ineligible to receive credit.  ("(a)(1) Notwithstanding any other law, every person who is convicted of any felony offense listed in paragraph (2), and who previously has been convicted two or more times, on charges separately brought and tried, and who previously has served two or more separate prior prison terms, as defined in subdivision (g) of Section 667.5, of any offense or offenses listed in paragraph (2), shall be ineligible to earn credit on his or her term of imprisonment pursuant to this article."  The code then goes on to list all of the crimes that render an individual ineligible for California parole release.

13California Penal Code 187 -- Murder.  ("(a) Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.")

14California Senate Bill x3 18 - California's new law relating to improving California's parole system while reducing recidivism.

15U.S. Code, Title 18, Part II, Ch. 227, Subchapter D, 3583.

16California Penal Code 3000 -- California parole.  ("(b) Notwithstanding any provision to the contrary in Article 3 (commencing with [California Penal Code] Section 3040) of this chapter, the following shall apply: (1) At the expiration of a term of imprisonment of one year and one day, or a term of imprisonment imposed pursuant to Section 1170 or at the expiration of a term reduced pursuant to Section 2931 or 2933, if applicable, the inmate shall be released on parole for a period not exceeding three years, except that any inmate sentenced for an offense specified in paragraph (3), (4), (5), (6), (11), (16), or (18) of subdivision (c) of [California Penal Code] Section 667.5 shall be released on parole for a period not exceeding five years, unless in either case the parole authority for good cause waives parole and discharges the inmate from the custody of the department. (2) In the case of any inmate sentenced under Section 1168, the period of parole shall not exceed five years in the case of an inmate imprisoned for any offense other than first or second degree murder for which the inmate has received a life sentence, and shall not exceed three years in the case of any other inmate, unless in either case the parole authority for good cause waives parole and discharges the inmate from custody of the department. This subdivision shall also be applicable to inmates who committed crimes prior to July 1, 1977, to the extent specified in Section 1170.2. (3) Notwithstanding paragraphs (1) and (2), in the case of any offense for which the inmate has received a life sentence pursuant to [California Penal Code] Section 667.61 or Penal Code 667.71, the period of parole shall be 10 years.")

17California Penal Code 3000.1 -- Life parole for murder.  ("(a) In the case of any inmate sentenced under [California Penal Code] Section 1168 for any offense of first or second-degree murder with a maximum term of life imprisonment, the period of parole, if parole is granted, shall be the remainder of the inmate's life.")

18See same.  ("(b) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, when any person referred to in subdivision (a) has been released on parole from the state prison, and has been on parole continuously for seven years in the case of any person imprisoned for first degree murder, and five years in the case of any person imprisoned for second degree murder, since release from confinement, the board shall, within 30 days, discharge that person from parole, unless the board, for good cause, determines that the person will be retained on parole. The board shall make a written record of its determination and transmit a copy of it to the parolee.")

19In re Hudson (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1,9.  ("We first observe that "[i]n California, parolee status carries distinct disadvantages when compared to the situation of the law-abiding citizen. Even when released from actual confinement, a parolee is still constructively a prisoner subject to correctional authorities. [Citations.] The United States Supreme Court has characterized parole as 'an established variation on imprisonment' and a parolee as possessing 'not ... the absolute liberty to which every citizen is entitled, but only ... the conditional liberty properly dependent on observance of special parole restrictions.'")

20California Penal Code 3067 PC -- Search and Seizure issues for parolees.  ("(a) Any inmate who is eligible for release on parole pursuant to this chapter shall agree in writing to be subject to search or seizure by a parole officer or other peace officer at any time of the day or night, with or without a search warrant and with or without cause. (b) Any inmate who does not comply with the provision of subdivision (a) shall lose worktime credit earned pursuant to Article 2.5 (commencing with Section 2930) of Chapter 7 on a day-for-day basis and shall not be released until he or she either complies with the provision of subdivision (a) or has no remaining worktime credit, whichever occurs earlier. (c) This section shall only apply to an inmate who is eligible for release on parole for an offense committed on or after January 1, 1997. (d) It is not the intent of the Legislature to authorize law enforcement officers to conduct searches for the sole purpose of harassment. (e) This section does not affect the power of the Director of Corrections to prescribe and amend rules and regulations pursuant to Section 5058.")

21California Penal Code 3003 PC -- Parole; geographic placement.   This penal code section lists a variety of circumstances and offenses that have very specific requirements of where a parolee may reside.  Typically, a parolee must be returned to the county in which he/she resided prior to incarceration, however public safety will trump that rule.  This means that if, for example, the parolee was convicted of a violent crime.and the victim resides less than 35 miles from the offender's prior residence.the parolee may be required to move.

22California Penal Code 290 PC -- Sex offender registration act.  PC 290 sets forth the requirements that someone who must register as a California sex offender must follow.

See also California Penal Code 457.1 -- Arson and attempted arson; persons convicted of arson; registration while residing California. This Penal Code section specifically addresses the variety of conditions that are imposed upon someone who has been convicted of Penal Code 451 arson.

See also California Health and Safety Code 11590 -- Persons required to register.  This code sets forth the registration requirements for parolees who were convicted of specific California drug crimes.

23See In re Hudson at 9, endnote 19, above.  (""A condition of [parole] will not be held invalid unless it '(1) has no relationship to the crime of which the offender was convicted, (2) relates to conduct which is not in itself criminal, and (3) requires or forbids conduct which is not reasonably related to future criminality....' [Citation.] Conversely, a condition of [parole] which requires or forbids conduct which is not itself criminal is valid if that conduct is reasonably related to the crime of which the defendant was convicted or to future criminality." ( People v. Lent (1975) 15 Cal.3d 481, 486, fn. omitted, 124 Cal.Rptr. 905, 541 P.2d 545.) FN5 FN5. The Lent case concerned conditions of probation. As the court in Stevens noted, "[t]he criteria for assessing the constitutionality of conditions of probation also applies to conditions of parole." ( Stevens, supra, 119 Cal.App.4th 1228, 1233, 15 Cal.Rptr.3d 168.)")

24California Penal Code 3060.5 -- Revocation; refusal to sign parole agreements. ("Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the parole authority shall revoke the parole of any prisoner who refuses to sign a parole agreement setting forth the general and any special conditions applicable to the parole, refuses to sign any form required by the Department of Justice stating that the duty of the prisoner to register under [California Penal Code] Section 290 has been explained to the prisoner, unless the duty to register has not been explained to the prisoner, or refuses to provide samples of blood or saliva as required by the DNA and Forensic Identification Data Base and Data Bank Act of 1998 (Chapter 6 (commencing with Section 295) of Title 9 of Part 1), and shall order the prisoner returned to prison. Confinement pursuant to any single revocation of parole under this section shall not, absent a new conviction and commitment to prison under other provisions of law, exceed six months, except as provided in subdivision (c) of [California Penal Code]Section 3057.")

25Please feel free to contact our Nevada criminal defense attorneys Michael Becker and Neil Shouse for any questions relating to Nevada parole law.




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