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Life in Limbo: An Examination of Parole Release for Prisoners Serving Life Sentences With the Possibility of Parole in California

NCJ Number
Robert Weisberg; Debbie A. Mukamal; Jordan D. Segall
Date Published
September 2011
30 pages
This study examined the "lifer" population in California, addressing its demographics and the processes by which "lifers" are considered for parole.
The "lifer" population refers to those serving life sentences with the possibility of parole under California's older indeterminate sentencing principles. In 2010, "lifers" composed 20 percent of California's State prisoners. The study produced 11 key findings. First, parole grant rates for lifers vary significantly from year to year. Second, although the parole commissioners may be more lenient in one dimension in a given time period, they become more stringent on another dimension. Third, when victims attend hearings, the grant rate is less than half the rate when victims are not present. Fourth, there is no statistically significant difference in the grant rates for different types of offenses. Fifth, prior records did not have a significant effect on parole release decisions. Sixth, most inmates committed the offense for which they received life between the ages of 20 and 25; those who committed their offenses between the ages of 20 and 30 were somewhat more likely to be paroled than inmates whose offenses were committed in their 40s. Seventh, other factors - such as immigration status, whether an inmate has children, and marital status - were not significantly associated with parole decisions. Eighth, more research is required to determine grant rate variance across prison facility and the reasons associated with it. Ninth, in-prison behavior can affect whether a lifer is granted or denied parole. Tenth, the grant rate is significantly linked with the results of measured recidivism risk and psychological stability. Eleventh, a history of substance abuse is not linked with the grant rate. The continuing analysis of parole-decision factors will be used to develop a comprehensive model of parole decisionmaking in California. 18 charts, 53 notes, and summaries of other research on the parole-release process for lifers