The primary factors taken into account for the time and conditions of an offender’s release in California include the court’s sentence for the offender; the offender’s behavior while in custody; the risk that the offender’s release poses to society; the offender’s age; and their medical condition, including mental health.
In California, distinct types of parole include medical parole for offenders who are permanently medically incapacitated; elderly parole for elderly individuals; and youth offender parole. The state or federal agency with authority over the offender determines whether they are eligible for parole, release or probation. In California, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) determines the conditions for an offender’s release.
Determinate and Indeterminate Sentencing
In California, the court sentences most offenders to state prison for a set amount of time under the Determinate Sentencing Law (DSL). Offenders sentenced to a determinate sentence serve a specific amount of time after which they are released to parole or to a probation officer. An offender serving a determinate sentence may become eligible for a parole suitability hearing before their release date, provided that they meet certain criteria.
The majority of other offenders are sentenced under the Indeterminate Sentencing Law (ISL). They serve a term of life with the possibility of parole and may not be released on parole until the parole board decides they are ready.
An offender serving a life sentence becomes eligible for a parole hearing by law one year before their minimum parole eligibility date. If a panel of the BPH finds the offender unsuitable for parole, the law requires that the next hearing date be set three, five, seven, 10 or 15 years in the future. An offender who has been denied parole may request that their hearing be moved to an earlier date if there is a change in circumstances. They can also request an earlier date if there is new information that establishes a reasonable likelihood that consideration of public safety does not require an additional period of incarceration imposed by the denial of parole that was issued.
Time and Conditions of an Inmate's Release
After serving a prison sentence, the agency that oversees a federal prison or a state prison releases the offender to supervised parole or community supervision, also known as probation. In California, the type of community supervision is determined by the California Penal Code. Serious and violent offenders and high-risk offenders are released to state parole. Non-serious, nonviolent, and non-sex offenders are released to county supervision.
California law requires parolees to be returned to the county that was their last legal residence before their incarceration, but they may be returned to another county if it would be in the best interest of the public. An offender released from prison to state-supervised parole is assigned a parole officer, also known as a parole agent, in the community where they will live.
The CDCR requires a parolee to follow their conditions of parole, which may include not being within 35 miles of the victim’s actual residence if the offender committed a violent felony. A victim or witness may contact the CDCR’s Office of Victim & Survivor Rights and Services to request special conditions of parole. The Division of Adult Parole Operations will consider the request before the offender is released.
Suitability Criteria for Parole Release
The BPH holds a parole suitability hearing to determine if an offender poses an unreasonable risk of danger to society if they were to be released from prison. The BPH panel considers all relevant, reliable information available to it. Factors that tend to show suitability for parole include lack of a juvenile record, stable social history, signs of remorse, motivation for the crime, lack of criminal history, age, plans for the future, and institutional behavior.
The panel also considers whether the offender suffered from battered woman syndrome (BWS) or intimate partner battering at the time of the crime and whether the crime was a result of the offender being victimized. Factors of unsuitability include the offender’s offense, previous record of violence, unstable social history, prior sadistic sexual offenses, psychological factors, history of mental health problems related to the crime, and institutional misconduct in prison or jail. An offender’s lack of insight is also a significant factor in determining whether they are currently unsuitable for parole.
If the panel finds an offender unsuitable for parole, they must explain the decision with evidence supporting the findings. If the panel finds an offender unsuitable based on static factors such as the crime committed or the offender’s criminal history, it must support its decision by showing evidence that supports the ultimate conclusion that the offender continues to pose an unreasonable risk to public safety. If the panel finds an offender does not pose an unreasonable risk to society and is suitable for parole, it will set a release date.
Early Release Credits for Good Behavior
Offenders who maintain good behavior, work or participate in approved rehabilitative programs and activities that help them develop skills to return to society are eligible to earn good conduct credits (GCC). In California, an offender can also earn credits by complying with the rules, avoiding violence and performing duties assigned to them. Credits can advance an individual’s release date if the offender is sentenced to a determinate term. It can advance their initial parole hearing date if they are sentenced to an indeterminate term with the possibility of parole.
Supervised Release Process and Reentry Services for Offenders
A state or federal agency may provide offenders pre- and post-release rehabilitative programs and services through alternative custody, residential, outpatient and drop-in centers. In California, the state offers live-in programs for offenders serving the last part of their prison term. They live in community programs, rather than in the state prison system.
The Long Term Offender Reentry Recovery Program (LTORR) is one feature of the state’s transitional housing program. This type of program is also known as a “halfway house” program, in that offenders can receive substance abuse treatment services and cognitive behavioral therapy. Choosing to enter a live-in program and maintaining good behavior to remain eligible for a live-in program can allow an offender an earlier partial release into the community.
- California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Sentencing, Incarceration & Parole of Offenders
- California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Lifer Parole Process
- California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Board of Parole Hearings
- California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Credit Earning – Frequently Asked Questions
- California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Reentry Services
- California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Long Term Offender Reentry Recovery Program (LTORR)
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.