The Innocent Prisoner's Dilemma: Consequences of Failing to Admit Guilt at Parole Hearings

67 Pages Posted: 29 Jan 2007 Last revised: 3 Apr 2008

See all articles by Daniel S. Medwed

Daniel S. Medwed

Northeastern University - School of Law


The granting of parole in the criminal justice system is often viewed as an act of grace: the dispensation of mercy by the government to an individual prisoner deemed worthy of conditional release prior to the expiration of his sentence. Yet the criteria upon which state parole boards base these acts of grace remain something of a mystery. Denials of parole are largely unreviewable and courts have held that due process imposes only a minimal burden upon parole boards to reveal the rationales for their decisions. Nevertheless, surveying state parole release decisions demonstrates that a prisoner's willingness to own up to his misdeeds - to acknowledge culpability and express remorse for the crime for which he is currently incarcerated - is a vital part of the parole decision-making calculus. That is, admitting guilt increases the likelihood of a favorable parole outcome for an inmate whereas proclaiming innocence serves to diminish the chance for release. The main objective of this Article is to consider whether this is wise. Should a prisoner's assertions of innocence be held against him in the parole process?

Part I of this Article briefly discusses the origins of parole in the United States as well as the contemporary features of parole release decision-making. Next, Part II explores how the reliance on prisoner admissions of guilt as part of the parole release decision intersects and potentially interferes with the efforts of innocent inmates to win their freedom. Part III then critically examines the theoretical and normative implications of the current parole system's emphasis on remorse and responsibility. Finally, Part IV recommends several specific reforms concerning the treatment of inmate claims of innocence at parole hearings. These reforms include limiting the use of parole hearing transcripts at subsequent post-conviction proceedings; distinguishing statements of remorse from those of responsibility; and re-conceiving the role played by parole boards in entertaining questions of guilt and innocence.

Keywords: wrongful convictions, innocence, post-conviction, parole

Suggested Citation

Medwed, Daniel S., The Innocent Prisoner's Dilemma: Consequences of Failing to Admit Guilt at Parole Hearings. University of Utah Legal Studies Paper No. 06-05, Iowa Law Review, Vol. 93, p. 491, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Daniel S. Medwed (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

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