Criminal Law

The Parole Process: An Early Release from Prison

By Janet Portman, Attorney
Prisoners are not entitled to parole -- they need to earn it.

Parole is the early release from prison, before the prisoner has served the entire sentence. Parolees remain under supervision for the balance of their sentence, and typically must comply with a set of behaviors, called “conditions of parole.” Prisoners are not entitled to parole; rather, parole boards consider a number of factors when deciding whether to grant parole.

The federal system does not grant parole as just described. Instead, for crimes committed after November 1, 1987, prisoners earn “good time” credits for exemplary behavior while incarcerated; these credits count toward early release. Prisoners whose crimes occurred before the above date are still eligible for parole hearings. At the time of sentencing, no matter the date of the crime, judges can order “supervised release” for any prisoner upon his or her release.

Who Grants Parole?

A group of prison officials, not judges, considers state prisoners’ requests for parole. Known as a “parole board,” these officials meet regularly to hear batches of requests. When the board denies parole, the prisoner may, in some cases, be able to appeal the denial to a board of appeals or to a court. Some prisoners may also be able to appeal to the governor to override the denial: In California, prisoners serving life sentences, who have completed the required minimum (often 25 years) but have been denied parole after that, may appeal to the governor to reverse the board’s decision.

In the federal system, the U.S. Parole Commission handles parole for four groups of prisoners: Those whose crimes pre-date November 1, 1978; prisoners serving time in the District of Columbia; military offenders serving time in federal prisons; and international prisoners (non-citizens whose cases are transferred to the U.S. by treaty).

What Do Parole Boards Consider When Deciding on Parole Requests?

Every state parole board must consider a prescribed set of factors when considering a prisoner’s request. Common among them are:

  • How serious was the underlying offense, and did the sentencing judge make any parole recommendations?
  • Has the prisoner followed prison rules and regulations while incarcerated?
  • Have any victims expressed strong concerns regarding parole, and
  • What are the chances that the prisoner will be able to successfully reintegrate into society?

The U.S. Sentencing Commission must follow federal law, which directs that prisoners whose behavior has been “exemplary” be given up to 54 days per year off their sentences. (18 U.S.C. section 3624(b).)

Typical Parole Conditions

Parolees serving a period of supervised release must typically meet periodically with their parole agent and follow a set of conditions. Failure to do so can result in parole revocation, which means the parolee goes back to prison. Besides meeting with one’s parole agent, common parole conditions include:

  • Obey all laws. Breaking a law, even if not convicted for it, can form the basis for a parole revocation.
  • Report one’s location. Often, parolees must call-in or wear electronic or GPS tracking devices.
  • Obtain permission to travel. Travel restrictions apply to international travel, and may also pertain to interstate travel.
  • Submit to random searches of their person and home. These searches need not be supported by probable cause, as is true in most situations.
  • Refrain from alcohol and drug use (and sale).
  • Avoid certain people, such as victims, gang members, witnesses, and codefendants.
  • Pay court-ordered fines and restitution (money paid to victims to compensate them for their losses), and
  • Attend court-ordered counseling or treatment programs, including anger-management courses

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If I am denied parole, can I appeal the decision or do I have to wait until I can apply for reconsideration?
  • Does a prisoner have the right to read and listen to all information used in parole determinations?
  • What can I do if I think my parole conditions are oppressive and unreasonable?
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