Editorial: No, crime survivors don’t need prosecutors at parole hearings. But they do need more help
On taking office in December, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón directed his prosecutors to no longer attend parole hearings or to argue against the release of felons who committed crimes in L.A. The angry and sometimes politically opportunistic backlash — including from Sheriff Alex Villanueva — rests on a distortion of parole’s purpose. It also misuses the ongoing pain of crime survivors. That’s a shame. Gascón’s directives to stay away from parole hearings make good sense.
Prosecutors don’t belong there. They are experts in the facts and circumstances of the crime, including the victims and the witnesses and how they were affected. They are experts in criminal law and in the range of sentences available. They seek justice based on the offender’s actions leading up to the time of sentencing, which follows either a trial or, far more often, a plea bargain.
The sentence generally includes provisions for parole, or at least acknowledges that in some cases parole will be available. Parole is not an unforeseen or unwarranted deviation from the sentence. It is integral to it.
By the time of the parole hearing, the offender has spent a good chunk of his or her life in prison. The hearing is not a retrial of the inmate, a reconsideration of the offense or an extension of the prosecution. The Board of Parole Hearings is not a court of appeal. Its sole purpose under law is to determine whether the inmate is “suitable for parole” — meaning sufficiently rehabilitated to be released with minimal risk to the public and an opportunity to responsibly reintegrate into society. On that issue, and at that time, the prosecutor has no expertise, and is many years removed from the trial or the plea. The experts are now the warden, psychologists, educators, job training supervisors and others who monitor behavior in prison.
Parole hearing officers of course consider those issues in light of the crime, along with previous crimes and behavior, all of which are well documented in each offender’s prison file. There is no need for the prosecutor to appear, to reargue the criminal case and to reflexively oppose every parole application.
There is of course a role, both morally and at law, for those who were affected by the crime and who have reason to fear being affected by the offender’s release. Crime survivors — direct victims of violent crime and collateral victims, such as family members of people who were murdered — have a right under a 2008 ballot measure (known as “Marsy’s Law”) to be informed of and to attend parole hearings. Such proceedings can prolong and exacerbate their trauma many years after the crime. They frequently need advocates. But who?
Too often they are misled into believing that the deputy district attorneys who prosecuted the crimes are their lawyers, and that they represent them from the time charges are filed through the trial and up to and including parole. That’s incorrect, although the blurred lines are understandable. During the most traumatic and vulnerable time of crime survivors’ lives, prosecutors provide comfort and counsel, and join with them in common cause to achieve closure and safety by seeing the perpetrator convicted and sentenced. Many deputy district attorneys find the deep and often lifelong bonds they form with survivors to be the most satisfying aspect of their very difficult work.
But they are not the victims’ lawyers, either at trial or, years later, at parole hearings. They represent not the victims but the people of California, collectively. By the time of the parole hearing, their proper role has long concluded. Their involvement at that stage injects an improper binary analysis, suggesting to the crime survivor that release (years after the crime) is inherently bad and continued imprisonment inherently good. But the value of the victim’s life and trauma, and the egregiousness of the crime, should not be measured by however many additional years the perpetrator does or does not remain incarcerated after a sufficient time has passed to preserve public safety and extract an appropriate amount of retribution.
Trying to position himself as the anti-Gascón, the grandstanding Villanueva has announced that he will now send his personnel to parole hearings to represent victims. It’s part of an ugly and abusive tug-of-war over crime survivors for political points. Law enforcement has no legitimate role at parole hearings.
The state and the counties (including district attorneys’ offices) have programs to provide counsel, advocacy and financial and other assistance to crime survivors at every stage of the process, but they suffer from too little funding and attention. That’s where public resources to support victims should be directed, not to misplaced prosecutorial efforts at parole hearings by deputy district attorneys or sheriff’s personnel.
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