Parole. Parole is the release from prison, prior to completion of full sentence, under supervised conditions. The parolee is still considered to be serving his/her prison term. The granting of parole is determined by a parole board, whose members are typically appointed by the governor of the state. Currently, sixteen states have abolished parole completely, and four more have abolished it for violent felons. This leaves 30 – 34 states where parole is still a potential path to early release for inmates. The preconditions for parole are generally: good behavior in prison, having achieved sufficient rehabilitation, believed not to be a danger to society, and means of support and a place to live after release.
Parole systems tend to operate in the “shadows” of the justice system. Parole system activities rarely attract media coverage, unless it involves a very high profile case, like Charles Manson, and even then, the only coverage is “was parole granted or not?” Parole boards cannot, and do not, determine innocence or guilt. They absolutely presume guilt, and based upon that, can only determine whether a prisoner is suitable for early release. I expect that the general public is largely clueless about how parole systems operate. And as far as I can tell, parole boards are subject to no oversight, and have no accountability.
One of the less recognized aspects of the conditions required for grant of parole has to do with “having achieved sufficient rehabilitation.” Parole boards commonly require that a prisoner “admit guilt and express remorse” before they will grant parole. The parole officials in some states will insist that admission of guilt is not a precondition. California law prohibits “admission of guilt” as a precondition for parole, and New Jersey parole board officials insist that “admission of guilt” is not a precondition for parole to be granted. But it seems that this is an area where “theory” and “practice” do not necessarily agree. And as I mentioned above, as far as I can tell, parole boards have no accountability or oversight to ensure that “admission of guilt” is, in fact, not a precondition.
Now, here’s the Catch 22. An actually innocent, wrongfully convicted person serving a long prison term will, more likely than not, have to admit guilt and express remorse to be granted parole. Not only does this mean that the innocent person would have to compromise his or her principles, and admit to a crime they did not commit, but in admitting guilt he or she also closes out any options they may have for eventual exoneration.
Here is a highly enlightening video clip done by the NY Times, appropriately titled “The Innocent Prisoner’s Dilemma” : See clip here. This poor guy got caught in what I’d have to call a Catch 44 (that’s a double Catch 22). For decades he refused to admit guilt, and was always denied parole, so after 23 years he decides he will compromise his principles and admit guilt so he can get paroled. When he finally admits guilt to the parole board, what do they come back with? ”So, you’ve been lying to us all this time. Parole denied.”
Professor Daniel Medwed of the University of Utah, writing for the Iowa Law Review in an article titled “The Innocent Prisoner’s Dilemma: Consequences of Failing to Admit Guilt at Parole Hearings” makes this statement in the executive summary of the article: ”To put it bluntly, innocent inmates currently face a true “prisoner’s dilemma” when encountering parole boards. Choice A consists of proclaiming innocence and consequently hindering the possibility of parole; Choice B involves taking responsibility for a crime the prospective parolee did not commit and bolstering the chance for release, albeit with dire effects for any post-conviction litigation involving the underlying innocence claim. This type of choice is one that no actually innocent prisoner should be forced to make. Ultimately, parole boards should be mindful of the possible legitimacy of some innocence claims and, at the very least, not reflexively hold those assertions against the prisoner in the release decision.” You can read Prof. Medwed’s article here: medwed – parole.
Some inmates have brought suit in the courts, claiming that parole has been unduly withheld, and won. See the Ohio Court of Appeals, Fifth District decision in the case of Seymour & Sheely vs. the Ohio Parole Authority, which remanded the case back to the trial court. You can read that decision here: Ohio Appellate Decision – Parole. However, if you are a wrongfully convicted sex offender, you’re really stuck. The US Appellate Court Third Circuit, in a 2010 decision that has been classified as “precedential,” ruled that it is legitimate to require admission of guilt from sex offenders before being placed in rehabilitation programs, which is a requirement of their parole. You can read that decision here: Third Circuit
If you’re interested in learning more about the operations of the parole system in the US, here is a report from the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center titled “Beyond the Prison Gates: The State of Parole in America” — Beyond_prison_gates