Researchers Studying California Life Sentence Parole Hearing Data Find Significant Racial Disparities in Outcomes May Be Caused by Inclusion of Professional Assessments

By Talia Kruger and Rena Abdusalam

SACRAMENTO, CA  — A study conducted in 2021 by Kathryne M. Young and Jessica Pearlman for the Cambridge University Press found that, when looking at transcripts for those serving life sentences in California, significant racial disparities were present.

They noted a contributing factor of this: The presence of professional assessments.

According to researchers, racial disparities exist and have been extensively studied in many other areas of the criminal justice system, including “police stops, police coercion, police uses of force, arrests, charging decisions and plea negotiations, sentencing severity, and wrongful convictions.”

However, prior to this study, research on parole hearings and the prevalence of racial disparities within them, had yet to be studied in depth.

According to researchers, a majority of states in the U.S. rely on a system of indeterminate sentencing, wherein punishments set by judges range in time, and of the people released from prison each year, they note, “More than 40 percent are released via discretionary parole, which is used in forty-six states.” And, “One in fifty-eight US adults is on parole, probation, or a combination of the two.”

Despite the prevalence and reliance on the parole system for the U.S. legal system, researchers chalked the lack of prior research on the topic to several factors, namely the lack of available data.

Even among states, according to researchers, there exist many differences in parole hearing procedures, who is permitted to sit on the parole board, whether or not the hearings are open to the public, and if the incarcerated individual can view their own parole file or even speak at and attend their own hearing.

Thus, to narrow the scope of their study, researchers decided to follow the parole hearing transcripts for “lifer” individuals in the California court system.

Their “data set was generated via detailed manual coding of transcripts of lifer parole hearings that took place in California between Oct. 23, 2007, and Jan. 28, 2010, sampled randomly and obtained with the assistance of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School.”

Of this data, researchers limited the data collection to people in men’s prisons to eliminate the likelihood of differences in outcome data for different sexes.

This exclusion also was convenient in that at the time 96 percent of those facing life sentences were male.  And, looking at a sample of 662 men, researchers noted “age at crime, age at hearing, number of prior adult convictions for violent crimes, and total number of adult convictions.”

Additionally, they separated data by type of offense: first degree murder, second degree murder, and a third category for the remaining conviction types.

They also took into account whether or not their conviction had one or multiple victims and what security placement score each man was given within prison.

Lastly, the researchers made note of whether or not the hearing had taken place before or after the implementation of Marsy’s Law, which gives victims and those impacted by the crimes committed the opportunity to speak at the hearing.

Next, researchers Young and Pearlman looked at two factors related to the individual’s efforts toward rehabilitation, including “whether he earned a degree in prison, such as a GED, vocational training certificate, or college degree; second, whether he secured a job, vocational training placement, or other formal program, such as a drug treatment program, to start after release.”

The final piece of data they captured was professional assessments conducted by “psychologists, corrections officers, and prosecutors.”

Specifically, they were looking for whether or not they recommended the individual be paroled, the number of citations for serious disciplinary offenses, and psychological evaluations.

To model the log odds, Young and Pearlman illustrated their research through three models.

Model 1 included overview information on the parole candidate, such as age, race, number of prior adult convictions, etc.  Model 2 indicated the steps a person took toward rehabilitation. Model 3 added professional assessment variables.

“To facilitate interpretation of the magnitude of the racial disparities in the likelihood of parole, we calculated a series of predicted probabilities of the likelihood of parole being granted, varying the race of the candidate,” stated the researchers.

By using all the coefficients from the models, they calculated and compared the predicted probabilities between the racial/ethnic groups, accounting the rehabilitation activities and effects of professional evaluations.

The researchers introduced their results with the likelihood of parole for the different racial groups. Despite being uncommon regardless of race, they found that white candidates were most likely to be granted parole and Black candidates were the least likely to be granted parole. Latino candidates were found to be right in the middle of the two ranging percentages.

Additionally, Black candidates made up over a third of life parole, white candidates made up over a quarter, and Latino candidates made up just under a third. Most life sentence parole candidates participated in rehabilitative activities, earned a degree, and had a job or post release program ready before their parole hearing.

The Black, Latino, and white candidates did share closely related profiles on the demographic, legal, and rehabilitation components of the data, despite the difference that Latino candidates are less likely to serve a sentence for first-degree murder.

However, noticeable differences were found in professional evaluations among the three groups.

For instance, “prosecutors opposed parole in 88 percent of hearings where the parole candidate was Black and 82 percent of hearings where the candidate was Latino, but only 73 percent of hearings where the candidate was white.”

Furthermore, the Latino and white candidates were more likely to be given a low-risk score based on psychological evaluation compared to the Black candidates.

Young and Pearlman then began to examine the impact of demographic characteristics and commitment offense.

According to the researchers, the type of commitment offense or prior criminal history do not appear to be considered during parole board decisions. However, it is shown that Black parole candidates have lower likelihood of receiving a grant than white candidates.

To be exact, “the predicted probability of a parole grant for white candidates is 15.8 percent. This is nearly twice the predicted probability for Black candidates (8.4 percent).”

Young and Pearlman also found that rehabilitative efforts in prison, like earning a degree or arranging work, influence the commissioners, leading to an increase of a grant.

However, apparent racial patterns remain with this factor, showing that Black candidates, even with an education or employment, continue to be at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving a grant.

Lastly, the researchers inspected the impact of prior decisions by criminal justice officials.

They established that “prosecutorial opposition to release and number of disciplinary citations are both associated with a decrease in the likelihood of a grant, while a low-risk psychiatric evaluation is associated with an increase in the likelihood of a grant.

“We find a significant difference between the rate at which Black lifer parole candidates and white lifer parole candidates obtain grants, with Black candidates significantly less likely to be granted parole,” said Young and Pearlman.

According to the researchers, their “methodological approach [do] not allow [them] to draw conclusions about parole commissioners’ subjective goals.”

They considered the idea that perceptions and implicit bias may contribute to the racial disparity.

They suggested that although Black candidates can be rehabilitated, decision-makers can judge that they have a greater rehabilitation treatment to unravel compared to the white candidates.

Another finding the researchers developed is that “nearly half the observed racial inequality owes to parole commissioners’ reliance on prior professional assessments.” However, the use of professional assessments can be particularly problematic and an unnecessary structure to consider.

Overall, they noted parole commissioners may add to racial disparities through “situational decision making,” failing to “account for potential differential treatment by other actors.”

To conclude, Young and Pearlman “shed light on how race can shape criminal justice decision-making in subtler ways at later stages—and with similarly devastating effects.”

They noted although racial disparities are more present and evident in the earlier stages of criminal justice decisions, procedures, like parole grants and parole release, are just as crucial and no less important, as these processes can change a person’s life.

About The Author

Rena is a junior at Davis Senior High School and is currently exploring her interest in the criminal justice system. After high school, she plans to attend college and continue to pursue a career in law.

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