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Making it to the other side of the case; supporting survivors and next of kin through the Parole Suitability Hearing process

Tue, 13/02/2024 - 04:00

When prison inmates sentenced in Riverside County become eligible for parole, Victim Services Specialist Cammie Sohm springs into action to reach out to the victim and/or survivors of that inmate and help them get through a difficult time.

VSS Cammie Sohm

Cammie, a 23-year veteran of the DA’s Division of Victim Services, helps victims, survivors, and loved ones of victims get through the upcoming step of parole – Parole Suitability Hearings. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there were 6,980 of those hearings across the state from January through November of 2023.

The people Cammie helps and supports as part of the DA’s Parole Unit range from adult survivors of child sexual abuse to extremely violent intimate partner violence cases to cases of attempted murder and homicide. 

“The survivors and victim next of kin that I work with have already experienced life changing trauma and are still in the process of reshaping their lives,” Cammie said. “This process is interrupted by the parole hearing process which now forces them to relive it all - and not just once. This can go on for a series of time.”

When a parole suitability hearing is scheduled, a strict timeline begins, and victims must adhere to that timeline if they want to take part in the hearing. It is Cammie's role to locate victims and families to notify them of their right to participate in the hearing. Most parole suitability hearings take place seven to 25 years after the defendant was convicted, so Cammie is often the first person from the criminal justice system the victim may talk to since that last day in court at the sentencing hearing.

Some survivors and loved ones preparing to take part in these hearings may experience stress as they revisit their trauma and reopen the emotional wounds inflicted by the crime while the person who hurt them challenges the criminal justice system to get out of prison sooner than expected. For others, preparing to serve as their loved one's voice, may feel empowering.    

There are several challenges that victims and loved ones face during the parole process. 

New changes in the law that focus on releasing inmates from prison have resulted in an increased negative impact to victims while also threatening the integrity of being able to assert their victims’ rights. Victims now face a new challenge in the criminal justice system when it comes to the legislature’s constant push to release inmates from prison sooner than the laws that sentenced defendants intended.  

To help prepare, Cammie recommends the following actions and considerations for you to take, if you or a loved one will be participating in a future parole hearing. 

What to be prepared for: 

1.    Keep your contact information on file with the DA’s Office and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

You are encouraged to continuously update your CDCR1707 form online. Link to form here.

This ensures that we can reach you in a timely manner when necessary. Cammie estimates that she spends up to three weeks searching for one family to notify them of parole hearings.

2.    Exercise your Victims’ Rights

Contact the DA’s Division of Victim Services and speak with a Victim Services Specialist for education about your rights as a crime victim. Victims have a right to provide a victim impact statement and present a photo of their loved ones at hearings. 

3.    Prepare your family members to take over the fight

As children of deceased victims become adults, they often join with their older relatives in attending hearings. This ensures that even when a relative passes away, someone is ready to take over the fight.  

4.    Prepare for the emotional impact

“This is going to be a stressful and emotional process and I’m going to walk you through everything that you need to know” Cammie says. You will have the opportunity to hear firsthand about the defendant’s efforts to rehabilitate. The commissioners who oversee these hearings will discuss and offer praise to inmates who show improvement, and this may be hard to hear. Sometimes you will learn that a defendant has made no effort to gain insight into their criminal behavior, and this may impact you as well. Some victims and family members find themselves needing counseling or therapeutic support during this time, speak with your Victim Services Specialist for resources to help you.

5.    Hearings can be lengthy so prepare for your needs

The average length of a parole hearing can range from two to four hours but know that hearings may take several hours longer than anticipated if there are major delays in the process. You have an option to attend the hearing online in your home or at the District Attorney’s Office where video conferencing equipment will be provided for you. You should arrange to be present for the entire hearing. Participants who must leave outside of the break period may not reenter the hearing. Participants are encouraged to bring their medications, food and snacks, comfortable clothing, and comfort items.  

After the hearing … 

The sense of relief that many experience after a parole denial is short lived. Defendants who are denied parole are often given a new parole hearing date within three years, forcing another wave of emotional trauma to be experienced. In some cases, defendants are “advanced” allowing for hearings to be set within 15-18 months.

Additionally, there are still many families in Riverside County who are awaiting this process and are waiting for a parole date to be set.

“One of the hardest parts about my job is having to educate people about the impact of changes in the law that have made it possible for inmates to become suitable for parole much sooner than originally sentenced,” Cammie said.

For more information about the Division of Victim Services and parole hearings visit our website at