How does parole work?

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Parole is a prison inmate’s privilege of conditional freedom. The prisoner gets out from behind bars, but has to live up to a series of responsibilities.

This article discusses what parole means and how it works in general, but laws and procedures will vary at least somewhat by state.

What Is Parole?

Parole is the release of a prisoner:

  • before the end of a prison sentence
  • on the condition that the prisoner (now the parolee) abide by certain rules
  • for the remainder of the sentence term.

A parolee who violates these rules—called parole conditions—may be sent back to prison.

Early Release

State law may designate some felons as ineligible for parole based on, for example, particularly violent or repeated offenses. On the other hand, the law may create the right to a parole hearing after a certain period in prison.

After a parole board finds a prisoner eligible for parole, the inmate appears at a parole hearing. If granted parole, the parolee is released and lives in free society, but under the continued supervision of the prison authority. The prison authority primarily supervises the parolee through mandatory visits with a parole officer. State parole services (usually a branch of the department of corrections) may provide transitional services tailored to the parolee’s needs, such as shelter in a halfway house or intensive mental health counseling.

Parole Conditions

Once out on parole, a parolee enjoys the privilege of relative freedom in return for abiding by certain conditions. (See Parole Conditions.) Some common conditions are that the parolee:

  • maintain employment and a residence
  • avoid criminal activity and contact with any victims
  • refrain from drug—and sometimes alcohol—use
  • attend drug or alcohol recovery meetings, and
  • not leave a specified geographic area without permission from the parole officer.

Each parolee is assigned a parole officer, and must meet with that officer periodically. The parole officer may also make unannounced visits to the parolee’s home to check that the parolee is truly abiding by the relevant conditions. Unannounced visits let the officer observe whether, for example, there is evidence of parole violations like drug or alcohol use.

Remainder of Sentence Term

Although there are exceptions, a parole period usually lasts as long as the portion of the prison sentence that the parolee didn’t spend behind bars. So, if Henry is supposed to serve ten years in prison, but receives parole after eight, his parole term would typically be two years. At the end of those two years, his release from official custody would be complete.

Privilege vs. Right

Parole is a privilege for prisoners who seem capable of reintegrating into society. It’s not a right. Although some criminal statutes carry a right to an eventual parole hearing, none absolutely guarantee parole itself. Indeed, authorities retain the discretion to deny parole to dangerous prisoners.

Parole Violations

To violate parole is to fail to live up to its conditions. The violation could be a bad act, like committing a new crime, or a failure to act, like not getting the parole officer's permission to leave the county or state before going out of town.

Some more minor violations, such as prohibited alcohol use, may cause a parole officer to require something of the parolee rather than immediately commence back-to-prison proceedings. For instance, the officer might refer the parolee to substance abuse counseling (including, for example, AA meetings), and require proof of attendance. If the parolee fails to comply with the requirement, or, if the parole violation was more serious, the officer may schedule a parole board hearing.

At the hearing, the board will consider the nature and circumstances of the violation. The board will then decide whether to send the parolee back to prison. The prisoner may spend the remainder of the original sentence back behind bars, or may be granted a new parole hearing set to occur after the prisoner serves some specified time in prison.

Getting Help

Parole law varies by state. If you have questions about it or want to know how the law applies to you, consider speaking with a qualified lawyer. A knowledgeable lawyer will be able to more fully explain the law and procedures, including whether parole decisions are final.

You may also find valuable information by searching online with terms like “prisoner parole resources in [your state].” Some government and nonprofit websites tend to provide accurate and helpful information.

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