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U.S. Supreme Court

Greenholtz v. Inmates of Nebraska Penal Complex, 442 U.S. 1 (1979)

Greenholtz v. Inmates of Nebraska Penal and Correctional Complex

No. 78-201

Argued January 17, 1979

Decided May 29, 1979

442 U.S. 1


Under Nebraska statutes, a prison inmate becomes eligible for discretionary parole when his minimum term, less good-time credits, has been served. Hearings are conducted in two stages to determine whether to grant or deny parole: initial review hearings and final parole hearings. Initial review hearings must be held at least once a year for every inmate. At the first stage, the Board of Parole examines the inmate's preconfinement and postconfinement record, and holds an informal hearing; the Board interviews the inmate and considers any letters or statements presented in support of a claim for release. If the Board determines that the inmate is not yet a good risk for release, it denies parole, stating why release was deferred. If the Board determines that the inmate is a likely candidate for release, a final hearing is scheduled, at which the inmate may present evidence, call witnesses, and be represented by counsel. A written statement of the reasons is given if parole is denied. One section of the statutes (§ 83-1,114(1)) provides that the Board "shall" order an inmate's release unless it concludes that his release should be deferred for at least one of four specified reasons. Respondent inmates, who had been denied parole, brought a class action in Federal District Court, chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 442 U. S. 2

which upheld their claim that the Board's procedures denied them procedural due process. The Court of Appeals, agreeing, held that the inmates had the same kind of constitutionally protected "conditional liberty" interest as was recognized in Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U. S. 471, also found a statutorily defined, protectible interest in § 83-1, 114(1), and required, inter alia, that a formal hearing be held for every inmate eligible for parole and that every adverse parole decision include a statement of the evidence relied upon by the Board.


1. A reasonable entitlement to due process is not created merely because a State provides for the possibility of parole, such possibility providing no more than a mere hope that the benefit will be obtained. Parole revocation, for which certain due process standards must be met, Morrissey v. Brewer, supra, entails deprivation of a liberty one has, and is a decision involving initially a wholly retrospective factual question as to whether the parolee violated his parole. Parole release involves denial of a liberty desired by inmates, and that decision depends on an amalgam of elements, some factual, but many purely subjective evaluations by the Board. Pp. 442 U. S. 9-11.

2. While the language and structure of § 83-1,114(1) provides a mechanism for parole that is entitled to some constitutional protection, the Nebraska procedure provides all the process due with respect to the discretionary parole decision. Pp. 442 U. S. 11-16.

(a) The formal hearing required by the Court of Appeals would provide, at best, a negligible decrease in the risk of error. Since the Board of Parole's decision at its initial review hearing is one that must be made largely on the basis of the inmate's file, this procedure adequately safeguards against serious risks of error, and thus satisfies due process. Pp. 442 U. S. 14-15.

(b) Nothing in due process concepts requires the Board to specify the particular "evidence" in the inmate's file or at his interview on which it rests its discretionary determination to deny release. The Nebraska procedure affords an opportunity to be heard, and, when parole is denied, it informs the inmate in what respects he falls short of qualifying for parole; this affords all the process that is due in these circumstances, nothing more being required by the Constitution. Pp. 442 U. S. 15-16.

576 F.2d 1274, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J.,delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 442 U. S. 18. MARSHALL, chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 442 U. S. 3

J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, in which BRENNAN and STEVE:NS, JJ., joined, post, p. 442 U. S. 22.

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