By Kathleen Cady
Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has now taken the indefensible position that victims don’t need to be informed that a parole hearing is schedule for an inmate who brutally raped them or murdered their loved ones. The California Constitution, however, guarantees victims the right “to be informed of all parole procedures, to participate in the parole process, [and] to provide information to the parole authority to be considered before the parole of the offender. . .” Article I, Section 28(b)(15). How victims choose to respond once they are informed is completely up to them.
Defendants who are convicted of murder, attempted murder or some aggravated sexual assault crimes can be sentenced to a “life” sentence. Before these lifer inmates can be released, they go through a hearing in front of the Parole Board who determines whether the inmate poses a current unreasonable risk to public safety or if he or she is “suitable” for release.
Prosecutors Are Prohibited from Attending Parole Hearings
On December 7, 2020, Gascón issued a policy that prohibited prosecutors from attending parole hearings. The result of this policy is that no one is present at parole hearings to represent the interests of the residents of Los Angeles County. Gascón’s written policy did state, “this Office will continue to meet its obligation to notify and advise victims under California law, and is committed to a process of healing and restorative justice for all victims.”
Victims are Provided No Information
In preparation for a parole hearing, the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) provides the inmate’s prison file to the district attorneys office that prosecuted that inmate. Prosecutors then provide information to victims and surviving family members of murder victims to help prepare victims to attend the parole hearing. For instance, victims need to know the inmate’s current risk assessment, whether the inmate has recent violations, if they have expressed remorse, what rehabilitative programming they have done, if any, etc. This helps victims to emotionally and mentally prepare for a possible parole grant, or conversely gives them information on why the inmate continues to pose an unreasonable risk to public safety.
On July 9, 2021, Gascón’s handpicked surrogate, Diana Teran, sent an email to the Executive Officer of BPH which stated, “As you may know, our current policy is not to have our prosecutors attend parole hearings. . . . it would be prudent to stop sending the information to our office and remove permissions to all previously accessed files.”
Victims and their families who contacted the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to obtain the information were directed to Teran. When the victims and their families contacted Teran she responded “[o]ur office does not provide more information than has been determined by CDCR to be appropriate and not subject to confidentiality or other legal concerns.” What she didn’t tell the victims, or their families is that those legal concerns had been raised by her and that she had instructed the prisons to funnel all such information only through her.
Gascón’s Chief of Staff, Joseph Iniguez, has since instructed prosecutors and advocates that they cannot refer victims to Diana Teran nor let victims know that Teran has access to prisoner files.
This means that victims and their families are left alone, with no legal assistance, no information and no one to speak on their behalf at parole hearings.
Gascón is Hiding Free Resources from Victims
Victims’ constitutional rights are also known as Marsy’s Law Rights, named for Marsy Nicholas who was murdered by a former boyfriend. In January 2021, several former prosecutors formed a group called Marsy’s Law Attorneys to provide pro bono representation for victims. This group assists victims and their families at parole hearings.
Gascón, however, is now deliberately hiding the one available resource from victims: free help from qualified and experienced attorneys who stand ready to help them assert their rights through the parole process. On March 22, 2022, Iniguez ordered prosecutors to stop referring victims to Marsy’s Law Attorneys. Subsequently, victim advocates, whose statutory mandate it is to provide resources and referrals to victims (Penal Code 13835.5(a)(3)), were also ordered to stop referring victims to Marsy’s Law attorneys.
Each month there are approximately 200 parole hearings for prisoners convicted of crimes committed in Los Angeles County. Victims, including rape victims or parents of murdered children, can register with CDCR to get notice of parole hearings through BPH. However, only 25% of victims of crimes in Los Angeles have registered to receive notice of parole hearings. Why would victims not register to get notice of a parole hearing? Because they never thought the defendant would come up for parole.
But the laws have changed and Gascón has issued policies that exacerbate the problem and violate victims’ rights.
- Prisoners who are over 50 years old and have served 20 years continuous custody are now entitled to an Elder Parole hearing regardless of their sentence. (Penal Code 3055).
- Anyone who was 25 years or younger at the time they committed a crime can be eligible for a youthful parole hearing after 15, 20 or 25 years. (Penal Code 3051).
- Anyone who was under 18 years old when they committed a crime and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole is eligible for parole hearing after 25 years (Penal Code 3051).
- There are several “Re”sentencing statutes where defendants can challenge their murder conviction or ask to have their sentence reduced. (Penal Code 1170, et seq.) Gascón’s Resentencing policy states, “this Office will reevaluate and consider for resentencing people who have already served 15 years in prison. . . . On resentencing, this Office will dismiss enhancements consistent with our current enhancement policies and otherwise not seek a sentence that is inconsistent with this office’s current sentencing policies.” In violation of county rules, Gascón has recently hired several retired deputy public defenders who now staff Resentencing Unit positions in the DA’s office.
- Gascón’s handpicked surrogate on habeas corpus claims, Shelan Joseph, is systematically conceding capital (death penalty) habeas claims and/or seeking to resentence all defendants whose case is pending a capital habeas claim.
What does all this mean? In a case where a 30-year-old murderer was sentenced to 60 years to life, victims would reasonably have thought that the murderer would die in prison. Except now, once the inmate turns 50 years old, they are eligible for an elder parole hearing. In a case where a 25-year-old was convicted of multiple kidnap-for-rape and rape counts and sentenced to 300 years to life, the rapist is eligible for a parole hearing after serving 25 years. A 17-year-old who committed multiple gang murders and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole is eligible for parole after 25 years in custody.
The people of this state, including victims and their families, have no way of knowing that the sentence the judge imposed is essentially meaningless. We have a right to expect elected officials to act in good faith and follow the oath they took to support and defend the constitution (California Constitution Article XX, Section 3). Victims and their families should be able to know that if the defendant does come up for parole that the District Attorney’s Office will represent the People, notify the victims, and help them through the process.
If victims assumed that, however, they would have been wrong – very wrong.
Another ludicrous consequence: Victims or their families are not notified of the parole hearing, they have no way of asking for parole conditions. For instance, sexual assault victims might want to ask that the person who violently raped them not be paroled to their neighborhood.
Gascón Has Decided it is “Not Appropriate” to Keep Victims Informed
Diana Teran, who was recently promoted to Director over Parole Division and all resentencing and habeas cases, has issued an edict that contradicts Gascón’s initial policy which stated, “this Office will continue to meet its obligation to notify and advise victims under California law.”
An email sent to prosecutors in the Lifer Hearing unit stated, “Administration has determined that it is “not appropriate” for the LADA to notify victims of crime and victim next of kin of those that were murdered that parole hearings are scheduled for the inmates that harmed them and their loved ones. We will continue to do the work on all cases assigned through October 2022.”
Instead, LADA claims that CDCR notifying victims and families in 25% of LA’s cases is sufficient. LADA will no longer make efforts to find those who haven’t registered and advise them of the changes in the law that resulted in an upcoming parole hearing of the criminal who harmed them or their loved one.
This new turn of events is outrageous. Victims who thought the person who raped them or murdered their loved one would never get a parole hearing will not be notified that a parole hearing has now been set.
Gascón’s policies summarized:
- Prosecutors are forbidden from attending parole hearings;
- Victims and their families are provided no information on the prisoner;
- Available resources are deliberately hidden from victims and their families; and
- Victims and their families are not informed by the LADA when a defendant has a parole hearing set. Thus, if they haven’t registered with CDCR, as nearly 75% have not, they will not even know the inmate is up for parole.
This systematic and pervasive violation of victims’ rights appears to be motivated by one goal: to release as many murderers, child molesters and rapists as possible from prison. Keeping victims informed and protecting the people of California and victims’ rights just seems to get in the way.
About the author: Kathleen Cady is one of several former prosecutors who are providing pro bono assistance to crime victims in response to Gascón’s policies.