California Prisoners Gain Protection from Bias in their Parole Hearings!

On September 10, 2015, a class of 10,000 California prisoners reached a tentative agreement with the California Board of Parole Hearings aimed at protecting prisoners from the improper use of psychological reports when the parole board considers whether to release them from prison.  Johnson v. Shaffer (Eastern District of California, No. 2:12 -cv-1059 KJM) was filed in April 2012 by Sam Johnson, a prisoner at San Quentin State Prison.  The Federal Court certified the case as a class action nearly two years later. 

Approximately 35,000 California prisoners (roughly 25% of all prisoners in the state) are serving indeterminate terms of life with the possibility of parole, meaning that, unlike the overwhelming majority of prisoners, who are automatically released once they have served the terms set by a court, these “Lifers” must appear before parole board commissioners, who consider their backgrounds, the details of their crimes, their prison disciplinary records and their psychological profiles to decide whether and when they are safe to be released. The 10,000 class members in Johnson are those who have served their minimum terms of 7, 15 or 25 years and are eligible for parole consideration.

Fewer than 20% of California’s Lifers are found suitable for release each year through a process that has been heavily criticized in dozens of court opinions.  The Johnson lawsuit claims that the parole board unlawfully relies on unscientific predictions of future risk in psychological reports that are virtually impossible to challenge – all in order to justify denying parole most of the time.  The parole board tried several times to dismiss the case in denying these allegations before finally agreeing to make changes to bring about more fairness to the process.

The proposed settlement (1) creates an appeals process to fix errors in psychological reports before they are considered by parole commissioners, (2) streamlines the psychological process by completely eliminating one type of report, (3) requires additional training for parole commissioners and (4) gives prisoners’ lawyers and their own expert the right to evaluate any future proposed changes in the psychological reports before they can be implemented.  These changes are a significant step toward restoring hope to a class of prisoners facing the daunting task of convincing a parole board laden with law enforcement officials that they can safely be released.

UnCommon Law represents Mr. Johnson and the class of 10,000 prisoners.  The proposed settlement must still be approved by District Court Judge Kimberly J. Mueller after considering additional input from the class of affected prisoners.  This victory could not have been possible without the hard work and thoughtful input from the members of the plaintiff class.

The proposed settlement agreement can be viewed here.