CRS Annotated Constitution

Fourteenth Amendment -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next

Probation and Parole.—Sometimes convicted defendants are not sentenced to jail, but instead are placed on probation subject to incarceration upon violation of the conditions which are imposed; others who are jailed may subsequently qualify for release on parole before completing their sentence, and are subject to reincarceration upon violation of imposed conditions. Because both of these dispositions are statutory privileges granted by the govern[p.1777]mental authority,168 it was long assumed that the administrators of the systems did not have to accord procedural due process either in the granting stage or in the revocation stage. Now, both granting and revocation are subject to due process analysis, although the results tend to be disparate. Thus, in Mempa v. Rhay,169 the trial judge had deferred sentencing and placed the convicted defendant on probation; when facts subsequently developed which indicated a violation of the conditions of probation, he was summoned and summarily sentenced to prison. The Court held that he had been entitled to counsel at the deferred sentencing hearing.

In Morrissey v. Brewer170 a unanimous Court held that parole revocations must be accompanied by the usual due process hearing and notice requirements. “[T]he revocation of parole is not part of a criminal prosecution and thus the full panoply of rights due a defendant in such a proceeding does not apply to parole revocation . . . [But] the liberty of a parolee, although indeterminate, includes many of the core values of unqualified liberty and its termination inflicts a ‘grievous loss’ on the parolee and often on others. It is hardly useful any longer to try to deal with this problem in terms of whether the parolee’s liberty is a ‘right’ or a ‘privilege.’ By whatever name, the liberty is valuable and must be seen as within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment. Its termination calls for some orderly process, however informal.”171 What process is due, then, turned upon the State’s interests. Its principal interest was that having once convicted a defendant, imprisoned him, and released him for rehabilitation purposes at some risk, it should “be able to return the individual to imprisonment without the burden of a new adversary criminal trial if in fact he has failed to abide by the conditions of his parole.” But the State has no interest in revoking parole without some informal procedural guarantees, inasmuch as this will not interfere with its reasonable interest.172

Minimal due process, the Court held, requires that at both stages of the revocation process—the arrest of the parolee and the[p.1778]formal revocation—the parolee is entitled to certain rights. Promptly following arrest of the parolee, there should be an informal hearing to determine whether reasonable grounds exist for revocation of parole; this preliminary hearing should be conducted at or reasonably near the place of the alleged parole violation or arrest and as promptly as convenient after arrest while information is fresh and sources are available, and should be conducted by someone not directly involved in the case, though he need not be a judicial officer. The parolee should be given adequate notice that the hearing will take place and what violations are alleged, he should be able to appear and speak in his own behalf and produce other evidence, and he should be allowed to examine those who have given adverse evidence against him unless it is determined that the identity of such informant should not be revealed. Also, the hearing officer should prepare a digest of the hearing and base his decision upon the evidence adduced at the hearing.173

Prior to the final decision on revocation, there should be a more formal revocation hearing at which there would be a final evaluation of any contested relevant facts and consideration whether the facts as determined warrant revocation. The hearing must take place within a reasonable time after the parolee is taken into custody and he must be enabled to controvert the allegations or offer evidence in mitigation. The procedural details of such hearings are for the States to develop but the Court specified minimum requirements of due process. “They include (a) written notice of the claimed violations of parole; (b) disclosure to the parolee of evidence against him; (c) opportunity to be heard in person and to present witnesses and documentary evidence; (d) the right to confront and cross–examine adverse witnesses (unless the hearing officer specifically finds good cause for not allowing confrontation); (e) a ‘neutral and detached’ hearing body such as a traditional parole board, members of which need not be judicial officers or lawyers; and (f) a written statement by the factfinders as to the evidence relied on and the reasons for revoking parole.”174 Ordinarily the written statement need not indicate that the sentencing court or review board considered alternatives to incarceration,175 but a sentencing court must consider such alternatives if the probation violation consists of the failure of an indigent probationer, through no fault of his own, to pay a fine or restitution.176


The Court has applied a flexible due process standard to the provision of counsel. Counsel is not invariably required in parole or probation revocation proceedings. The State should, however, provide the assistance of counsel where an indigent person may have difficulty in presenting his version of disputed facts without cross–examination of witnesses or presentation of complicated documentary evidence. Presumptively, counsel should be provided where the person requests counsel, based on a timely and colorable claim that he has not committed the alleged violation, or if that issue be uncontested, there are reasons in justification or mitigation that might make revocation inappropriate.177

With respect to the granting of parole, the Court’s analysis of the due process clause’s meaning in Greenholtz v. Nebraska Penal Inmates178 is much more problematical. Rejected was the theory that the mere establishment of the possibility of parole was sufficient to create a liberty interest entitling any prisoner meeting the general standards of eligibility to a due process protected expectation of being dealt with in any particular way. On the other hand, the Court did recognize in the particular statute before it the creation of some expectancy of release that was entitled to some measure of constitutional protection, while cautioning that only by a case–by–case analysis could it be said whether other parole statutes similarly created such expectancy.179 In any event, the Court considered the nature of the decisions that parole authorities must make to hold that the full panoply of due process guarantees is not required; procedures designed to elicit specific facts are inappropriate under the circumstances. Rather, minimizing the risk of error is the prime consideration, and that goal was achieved by the board’s largely informal methods; the lower court erred, therefore, in imposing requirements of formal hearings, notice, and specification of particular evidence in the record. The inmate was afforded an opportunity to be heard and when parole was denied he was informed in what respects he fell short of qualifying. That afforded the process that was due.

Where, however, government by its statutes and regulations creates no obligation of the pardoning authority and thus creates[p.1780]no legitimate expectancy of release, the prisoner may not by showing the favorable exercise of the authority in the great number of cases demonstrate such a legitimate expectancy.

Supplement: [P. 1780, add to text at end of sentence carried over from P. 1779:]

The power of the executive to pardon, or grant clemency, being a matter of grace, is rarely subject to judicial review.33

The mere existence of purely discretionary authority and the frequent exercise of it creates no entitlement.180


168 Ughbanks v. Armstrong, 208 U.S. 481 (1908) , held that parole is not a constitutional right but instead is a “present” from government to the prisoner. In Escoe v. Zerbst, 295 U.S. 490 (1935) , the Court’s premise was that as a matter of grace the parolee was being granted a privilege and that he should neither expect nor seek due process. Then–Judge Burger in Hyser v. Reed, 318 F. 2d 225 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 375 U.S. 957 (1963) , reasoned that due process was inapplicable because the parole board’s function was to assist the prisoner’s rehabilitation and restoration to society and that there was no adversary relationship between the board and the parolee.
169 389 U.S. 128 (1967) .
170 408 U.S. 471 (1972) .
171 Id. at 480, 482.
172 Id. at 483–84.
173 Id. at 484–87.
174 Id. at 487–89.
175 Black v. Romano, 471 U.S. 606 (1985) .
176 Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660, 672 (1983) .
177 Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U.S. 778 (1973) .
178 442 U.S. 1 (1979) . Justice Powell thought that creation of a parole system did create a legitimate expectancy of fair procedure protected by due process, but, save in one respect, he agreed with the Court that the procedure followed was adequate. Id. at 18. Justices Marshall, Brennan, and Stevens argued in dissent that the Court’s analysis of the liberty interest was faulty and that due process required more than the board provided. Id. at 22.
179 Following Greenholtz, the Court held in Board of Pardons v. Allen, 482 U.S. 369 (1987) , that a liberty interest was created by a Montana statute providing that a prisoner “shall” be released upon certain findings by a parole board.
180 Connecticut Bd. of Pardons v. Dumschat, 452 U.S. 458 (1981) ; Jago v. Van Curen, 454 U.S. 14 (1981) . The former case involved not parole but commutation of a life sentence, commutation being mecessary to become eligible for parole. The statute gave the Board total discretion to commute, but in at least 75% of the cases prisoner received a favorable action and virtually all of the prisoners who had their sentences commuted were promptly paroled. In Van Curen, the Court made express what had been implicit in Dumschat; the “mutually explicit understandings” concept under which some property interests are found protected does not apply to liberty interests. Van Curen is also interesting because there the parole board had granted the petition for parole but within days revoked it before the prisoner was released, upon being told that he had lied at the hearing before the board.

Supplement Footnotes

33 Ohio Adult Parole Auth. v. Woodard, 523 U.S. 272 (1998) .
Fourteenth Amendment -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next