The California Penal Code makes clear that parole is supposed to be the norm, not the exception, for inmates sentenced to life in prison. But these inmates, convicted for murder, rape, and kidnapping and commonly known as lifers, never had greater than a 7 percent estimated likelihood of release from 1991 to 2010. California is unique in that if the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) approves parole, then the governor has the power to reverse the decision and deny parole. A combination of a low BPH grant rate and an inconsistent-but-often-high governor reversal rate has contributed to a low likelihood of parole for lifers in California. When lifers appeal a parole denial to the state courts, they face the difficult hurdle of the highly deferential some evidence standard.
Until the California Supreme Court decided In re Lawrence in 2008, many lower courts found that the BPH’s or governor’s denials of parole met the some evidence standard simply because the inmate’s murder was heinous. Lawrence set a higher bar, requiring these executive branch entities to provide evidence that the inmate was currently dangerous. It also seemed to advance a less deferential model and give courts more leeway in scrutinizing the evidence relied on by the BPH and governor. But another California Supreme Court case in 2012, In re Shaputis (Shaputis II), appeared to retract from that model and adopt a more deferential model.
Without further clarification, lower courts struggle to apply the some evidence standard consistently. A brief empirical review of California appellate court decisions reveals that over one-third of these decisions continue to apply the less deferential model, despite Shaputis II. Because this inconsistent application of the some evidence standard deprives lifers of due process in a recognized constitutional liberty interest, the California Supreme Court must choose between the two models. To ensure due process for lifers and maintain a proper checks and balances system, the court should adopt the less deferential model.