A Federal Judge has approved a settlement giving California prisoners greater protections when being considered for parole. On May 27, 2016, District Court Judge Kimberly J. Mueller, of the U.S. District Court in Sacramento gave final approval to a settlement agreement between a class of 10,000 California prisoners and the California parole board. The lawsuit aimed to protect prisoners from the improper use of psychological reports when the parole board considers whether to release them. The case is Johnson v. Shaffer (Eastern District of California, No. 2:12 -cv-1059 KJM). UnCommon Law filed the complaint in April 2012 on behalf of Sam Johnson, a prisoner at San Quentin State Prison. The Federal Court certified the case as a class action in March of 2014.
Approximately 35,000 California prisoners (nearly 30% of all prisoners in the state) are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. These prisoners 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.
California’s parole consideration process has been heavily criticized over the years for, among other things, its low rate of actually granting parole, ranging from as low as 1% to roughly 20%. The Johnson lawsuit claimed that the parole board unlawfully relies on unscientific and unreliable predictions of future risk in psychological reports that are virtually impossible to challenge – all in order to justify denying parole most of the time. Jennifer Shaffer, current head of the parole board, has made laudable improvements in transparency and professionalism since she took over, and she has worked hard to fix problems like these, which existed long before she arrived.
The Johnson settlement makes the following changes: (1) creates an appeals process to fix errors in psychological reports before they are considered by parole commissioners, (2) streamlines the process by completely eliminating one type of report, (3) requires additional training for parole commissioners and (4) gives UnCommon Law and our own expert the right to evaluate any future proposed changes in the psychological reports before they can be implemented. Many prisoners, their families and other advocates contributed directly to this victory. Together, we strive to bring about fairness in this process, ensuring that even those who have committed serious crimes have a chance to redeem themselves and to safely rejoin mainstream society.