Before 1977, ALL California prisoners were sentenced to Indeterminate sentences, a term that included “imprisonment for life” (i.e. five years to life for armed robbery). After serving a certain amount of time, a prisoner had to appear in front of a parole board in order to earn their release date. The parole board required inmates to participate in programs and accomplish a set of criteria before parole could be granted.

From Prison Law: Among other consequences of this policy, the parole board — an unelected and relatively anonymous government body — had all the practical power over sentencing in California — legislators, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys had virtually no say in how much time any given defendant would actually wind up serving. Also, the sentences actually served for the same crime varied widely from one offender to the next: For instance, out of inmates doing time for second-degree murder in the early 1970s [in California], the actual time served ranged from 19 months to 26 years.

The Determinate Sentencing Law was enacted in 1977 to make the parole release process less arbitrary. Thus, a distinct and separate class of inmates was created – those who are NOT required to do anything to earn their release date. A stark contrast to those [Indeterminate] Life Term prisoners who are required to earn a parole release date by performing specific criteria.

Jerry Brown, now mayor of Oakland, recently said the state should end its experiment with so-called determinate sentencing and replace it with something like the old model, which required most inmates to earn their freedom by convincing parole boards that they were rehabilitated.


In California, the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) lays out a specific set of requirements that a Life Term inmate must follow to earn a finding of parole suitability. An inmate must:

1). Participate in self help courses (such as NA, AA, Al-Anon, or numerous groups run by staff psychologists)

2). Obtain a vocational trade (such as auto mechanics, janitorial, dry cleaning, welding, etc).

3). Remain disciplinary free (no write-ups).

4). Upgrade education level to at least a GED (or a college degree).

Thus, an inmate serving an Indeterminate Life Term has to do something in prison in order to be released into society. A Life With Parole prisoner serves a minimum of 10-15 years before being eligible to see a parole board, which allows the inmate time to participate in programming, to develop maturity and insight into his crime, and to work on any addictions which may have triggered the criminal behavior in the first place.

In other words, by the time the Life Term prisoner serves his minimum eligible time, he is likely to be a changed person.

In stark contrast, a determinate sentence prisoner in California is not required to do anything in order to be released – he can literally watch TV, work out, socialize in the dayroom, play dominos or chess all day and NEVER attend a help group, never upgrade his education, never obtain a vocational trade, and most shockingly, he can engage in a repeated pattern of ongoing disciplinary behaviors and accumulate disciplinary write-ups.

When you look at the recidivism rates of either class of prisoners, you understand the problem. Lifers on parole have a less than 2% return rate.

*From Stanford Law School study: Over 1,000 inmates have been released from custody under Proposition 36 to date, according the Department of Corrections. Less than 2 percent of the inmates released so far under Proposition 36 have been charged with a new crime.

It is apparent and obvious as to WHY. When you don’t require a person to perform or meet any specific criteria, plan, task or goal, they will live aimlessly each day, pursuing personal pleasures. Many inmates committed their crime(s) pursuing pleasure for the adrenaline rush – and this kind of criminal behavior does not change once inside prison.

LIFE term inmates make the best workers in prison and can be found mostly working in the Prison Industry Authority (prison industries manufacture many goods, which are purchased by the State of California) where inmates are making anywhere from $0.30 to $1.00 an hour by having a good work ethic and being less likely to steal or engage in criminal behavior. They also know that one write up can cost them YEARS at a parole board hearing. Earning a decent wage, their basic needs are mostly met.

Determinate sentence prisoners, on the other hand, are mostly working in prison jobs where they are only needed for 30 minutes to 2 hours of the entire day and so end up having too much time on their hands. Boredom leads to criminal thinking and definite relapse, where the inmate seeks an escape from the reality by using dope or drinking prison-manufactured alcohol called ‘pruno.’

It is apparent that when the prison system does not REQUIRE an inmate to participate in self help, to upgrade their education or to stay disciplinary-free, the inmate is likely not capable of fixing himself and the Department offers nothing to correct the behavior that got the inmate into prison in the first place.

Other CDCR Studies: 

report shows that inmates released after serving an indeterminate sentence, while few in number, recidivate at a much lower rate (11.5 percent) than those who served a determinate sentence (61.0 percent).

Another report shows that the seriousness of an inmate’s commitment crime is often inversely related to his/her recidivism risk. For example, second-degree murderers have a recidivism rate of 10.3 percent while people convicted of vehicle theft have a 72.5 percent recidivism rate.

From the conclusion of the CDCR LIFER REPORT SERIES: Examination of lifer parolee recidivism rates for a fiscal year cohort that was followed for a period of three years from release to parole shows that lifer parolees receive fewer new convictions within three years of being released to parole (4.8 vs. 51.5 percent, respectively). They also have a markedly lower return to prison recidivism rate than non‐lifer parolees (13.3 vs. 65.1 percent, respectively).

I have personally seen inmates parole and return to the same prison on multiple different crimes and terms, serving what I call “life on installments.” Each time, such inmates say they are not coming back, but they always do.

It is my opinion that if there is going to be any real prison reform or real ongoing reduction in the prison population, that all inmates should go before a parole board as required prior to 1977. A criteria should be laid out to a new arrival prisoner and if he meets and performs to that set of criteria, only then should the prisoner be released into society.

If the prison system continues to give criminals a release date as a guarantee without any expectations of performance, we will continue to see a revolving door of inmates coming in and out of prison. In the alternative, prison officials can require that determinate sentence prisoners are upheld to the same criteria a life prisoner is and, if the inmate does not perform, the inmate must serve out his ENTIRE determinate sentence – not half time or 85%.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) should also be required to publicly publish and provide a definition in the employee manual and inmate Title 15 California Code of Regulations, defining the word “rehabilitation.”

Without a definition, can any correctional employee, staff psychologist or correctional counselor aspire to help rehabilitate a prisoner or give guidance for a prisoner to rehabilitate himself?

David Valdez is serving 27 years to Life in California for conspiracy to commit murder.  

David Valdez #J-52660

CTF Central EW-126_Up

PO Box 689

Soledad, CA 93960-0689