Law Quarterly

Parole: How Does it Work?

By Dylan Weber


In 2008, Orenthal James Simpson was sentenced to a total of 33 years in prison for a bevy of charges stemming from a September 2007 robbery. However, his release just this past October on parole may have people wondering why, and how, he was granted this temporary release a whole 24 years short of his original sentence. Due to these circumstances, it seems like it is an appropriate time to revisit the idea of parole. How does it work? When is someone eligible for parole? How do they earn it? What happens afterwards? On the contrary, we will also briefly compare O.J.’s circumstances to that of noted serial killer Charles Manson in an effort to get a more diverse look at the process.

Parole is the release of a prisoner before the end of their sentence on the condition that the parolee must abide by certain rules and obligations for the remainder of their original sentence. However, not every prisoner gets the opportunity to apply for parole. The process of parole begins at sentencing, and unless the judge wishes to explicitly state when the earliest possible date the prospective prisoner is eligible for parole, the typical standard is one-third of the way through the prisoner’s sentence, provided the sentence gives the prisoner an opportunity for parole. So for example, if a prisoner is convicted and sentenced to a term anywhere from 30 years to life, he or she would be eligible for parole after their tenth year. In the case of O.J. Simpson, he was granted by Judge Jackie Glass to be eligible for parole after nine years. Similarly, serial killer Charles Manson, along with many of his female disciples, were deemed to be eligible for parole at various times throughout their sentences, all about one-third of the way through their sentences  when they were handed down in 1971.

Once it comes time for a prisoner to apply for parole, he or she must fill out an application that has been given to them by a case manager. That case manager must then notify the prisoner when their parole hearing has been scheduled, if at all. Not all parole applications are accepted and result in a hearing. Should a prisoner be granted a hearing, they will typically be heard around the date that was established during their sentencing or around one-third of the way through their sentence.

At a parole hearing, the prisoner has a chance to present their side of the story to a parole board, which is a panel of prison officials whose job it is to hear requests and determine, based on numerous factors, if the prisoner should be granted parole. States that grant parole differ in the factors they take into consideration, but in Simpson’s home state of Nevada, parole boards base their decision off of 11 factors, which include age at the time of first arrest, gender, current age, and the presence of disciplinary write-ups during the prisoner’s incarceration. Each one of the 11 factors is then given a score on a scale of -1 to +2. A prisoner hopes for the least amount of points possible, as a total of four or less classifies them as “low risk” whereas five points or more may earn them a “medium” or “high risk”. According to the Associated Press, Simpson’s score was a 3, as the dynamic of being incarcerated in a medium rather than high-security prison, old age, absence of disciplinary write-ups, and enrollment in education courses during his sentence all worked in favor of him. On the contrary, Charles Manson has been up for parole twelve times in front of the California state parole board since being incarcerated in 1972, with each time resulting in a denial. Unlike Simpson, the parole board “could find nothing good as far as suitability” for Manson being paroled, a commissioner said. A release plan that is tailored around the prisoner will also most likely be discussed, with aspects such as a verifiable place of residence, means of support, and possibly an offer of a form of employment.

After testimonies are heard from the prospective parolee, as well as close family members if they wish to do so, the members of the parole board who were present at the hearing will then deliberate and come to a decision. If the decision is unanimous in favor of granting parole, parole is granted. Should the decision not be unanimous, the members of the parole board present at the hearing will then deliberate with the rest of the parole board until there is a majority of either “yes” votes in favor of granting parole, or “no” votes in favor of continued incarceration. The Nevada Parole Board often has a four-person parole panel at most hearings, as was the case at Simpson’s July 20th hearing. In this instance, further deliberation with the rest of the parole board was not needed, as the four present members had voted unanimously to grant Simpson parole. For those prisoners who are not as fortunate as to receive parole, the next date they are eligible to apply will usually be announced in the concluding remarks of the parole hearing. After his twelfth parole hearing in 2012, the California parole board announced Charles Manson would next be up for parole in 15 years, in 2027, which is the maximum time allowed under law.

Once being granted parole, the prisoner will go back to their correctional facility and serve out the remaining time until the official release date. Once that day arrives, the new parolee will start to execute their release plan discussed during the hearing, and will have to abide by the conditions of release set out by the parole commission. Some of Simpson’s conditions of release have been leaked out and include obtaining permission from the Nevada Division of Parole and Probation to change a permanent residence, not being able to consume alcohol in excess of a .08 BAC, and not being allowed to own a gun. A violation of any of these or the rest of the conditions of release will result in Simpson being sent back to jail to serve out the rest of his sentence.

Though the stories of O.J. Simpson and Charles Manson are of high public interest due to their  high-profile status, it is important to note that their prominence did not change the way the criminal justice process works. Just like other criminals, prisoners, and parolees, they were sentenced to serve time in prison, were eligible to apply for parole, and were either granted or denied that parole based off of numerous objective factors that are taken into consideration for all prospective parolees. Though parole seems to be a dying trend, as 15 states have already eliminated their parole boards completely, it is still a vital part of the criminal justice process and needs to be understood as a legitimate piece of criminal procedure.

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