Photo of Darby Aono

Darby Aono

  • Hosted by UnCommon Law
  • Sponsored by Covington & Burling LLP, The Clorox Company Foundation
  • Service location Oakland, California
  • Law school University of California, Berkeley School of Law
  • Issue area Criminal Justice Reform, Elder Abuse
  • Fellowship class year 2022
  • Program Design Your Own Fellowship

The Project

Darby (she/her/hers) will advocate for and empower elders in California prisons by challenging illegal parole denials and creating comprehensive resources for pro se litigants.

There are approximately 34,000 people in California serving life sentences with the possibility of parole – over one-third of the state prison population – many of whom are elders, and the vast majority of whom are Black and brown. Statistically, elder Lifers are exceedingly safe to be released from prison, with recidivism rates of less than one percent. However, the Board of Parole Hearings grants parole to only 18% of eligible elder Lifers each year. The Board frequently denies parole for illegal reasons, and the only way to challenge a parole denial is via habeas corpus petition. Most Lifers can’t afford to retain habeas counsel, and free legal aid is extremely rare. As a result, pro se litigants provide a primary check on the Board’s powers; however, systemic barriers and a lack of support make it virtually impossible for most Lifers to do so.

Fellowship Plans

Darby’s project will use a two-pronged approach to advocate for and empower elder Lifers who are ready to come home. Firstly, she will provide direct representation to elder Lifers who were illegally denied parole and who seek to challenge the denial. The second prong of the project will focus on empowering Lifers who seek to challenge an illegal parole denial but do not have access to counsel. Darby will perform a needs assessment to determine the resources necessary to support Lifers in challenging parole denials pro se. She will then create and distribute a resource guide for these pro se litigants; the guide will include answers to common questions about habeas petitions, as well as template arguments challenging the most common illegal bases for denial.

So long as the Board of Parole Hearings has the power to decide whether someone spends seven years or seven decades in a cage, I will fight alongside Lifers to hold the Board accountable for its actions.

Darby Aono /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

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