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Reached by phone, Ibrahim said he could not recall the specific case, but said it was likely he conducted a phone interview. "It's just a common practice," he said, noting that the state doesn't pay for mileage driving to and from prisons. But he said all his interviews are at least twenty minutes and much more in-depth than how Johnson described it to me. "I can have the same quality of interview over the phone."
Regardless, Johnson's frustration with his attorney is common among lifers. Inmates who can't afford private counsel are entitled to state-appointed lawyers, who are approved by the Board of Parole Hearings and are essentially independent contractors for the prisons. The attorneys get paid a maximum of $400 per client, and that amount is supposed to cover the costs of meeting with the client, reviewing hundreds of pages of case files, preparing for the hearing, travel time to and from prisons, and sitting through the hearing itself, which is often three or four hours long. With such low pay, even the most dedicated attorneys are limited in the time and effort they can devote to clients.
"It is a very underserved population," said Kate Brosgart, a state-appointed attorney who is based in Berkeley, referring to inmates up for parole. Brosgart, who does lifer parole hearings full-time, said that with $400 per client, she is able to meet with each client once for about an hour usually two months or so before the hearing date and spends about four hours on her own prepping for the date. If hearings go long — sometimes five or even as long as eight hours, depending on the circumstances — she doesn't receive extra compensation.
In a busy month, Brosgart can have more than 25 hearings — an incredibly intensive caseload that further limits her ability to meaningfully serve her clients. Even with the poor pay and busy schedule, Brosgart said she strives to vigorously defend each client and at least help them get one step closer to release. After I observed her during one of her hearings in November and had an extensive follow-up interview with her about lifers, it was clear to me that she is passionate about her responsibilities and has persisted in the job because she knows how desperately these inmates — whose families often can't afford attorneys — need competent lawyers. "There's a real beauty to working with people who have really rehabilitated themselves," she said. "There are so many lifers who have just spent many, many years at this point becoming educated, becoming certified in different trade areas, who have very important responsibilities in the institution. ... There's nothing that makes that person still dangerous."
- Bert Johnson
- Jeremy Valverde, a Berkeley-based state-appointed attorney who represents lifers, said he is forced to depend on his private work and his wife's salary to subsidize his parole practice.
Many lifers with state-appointed attorneys aren't so lucky to get matched with a caring advocate like Brosgart. She and other attorneys shared with me horror stories that they said are all too common. Brosgart said she has heard of cases in which attorneys essentially give up on their clients — deciding early on that the case is hopeless. They may decline to make a closing statement on their client's behalf or fail to counter questionable claims by district attorneys, who also participate in hearings and often argue against a parole grant.
Jeremy Valverde, another Berkeley-based state-appointed attorney who represents lifers, said he is forced to depend on his private work and his wife's salary to subsidize his parole practice. "I really believe in the right for everyone to have fair and adequate representation at their hearing," he said, noting that when he meets lifers, many of whom have already been denied parole before, they are typically shocked by his enthusiasm and efforts. "They're used to a certain amount of lethargy," he said. "[The attorney] may just sit there and say nothing the whole hearing. That's been the expectation."
Valverde recently met a lifer with a very troubling story about his appointed lawyer. According to the inmate, the state-appointed attorney had pressured him to "stipulate" that he is unsuitable for parole, which means at the start of the hearing, he would tell the board he is not ready to go home — thus delaying any parole consideration for years. While a delay can be a smart move for someone who is truly unprepared — because the commissioners can deny parole for up to fifteen years — the inmate felt he was ready to make his case, Valverde said. It appeared that the lawyer simply hadn't done the necessary prep work before the hearing. "You're essentially trying to deprive this client of his rights to his trial, because you're not prepared to go forward," he said.
As some state-appointed attorneys struggle to make a difference within the confines of a process that seems to fundamentally devalue their roles, a small group of private attorneys and advocates are pushing for systemic changes — reforms that would help incarcerated people access the second chances to which they are legally and ethically entitled.
Lifers convicted of gruesome and unimaginable crimes must eventually be released — unless they continue to pose a clear threat to public safety. That is, at least, the directive written into California penal code, which states that the board "shall normally grant parole" the first time any lifer appears for a hearing. What that means is the state essentially has an obligation to release a lifer who is eligible for parole, as long as he or she is not a danger. And the board cannot determine that a lifer is a current risk simply because the original offense was horrible.