Eligibility for Parole

When does an inmate become eligible for parole and what exactly does that mean?

An inmate's parole eligibility date is getting closer. Does that approaching date mean the person is almost out from behind bars? Not necessarily. Parole isn't something a prisoner automatically receives after a certain period of time in prison. But becoming eligible is the first step.

The Nature of Parole

Parole involves the discretionary release of a prisoner before the end of their sentence. Time spent on parole is generally spent in the community under supervision. Being granted parole is not guaranteed; release is up to a parole board.

Under a parole system, an offender generally receives what's called an indeterminate sentence, which has a maximum term and sometimes a minimum term of imprisonment (say 15 to 20 years). The sentence is indeterminate because the offender's actual release date is unknown.

Why Have a System of Parole?

Parole can help a previously incarcerated person establish a life in mainstream society under the guidance of a parole officer. For example, being on parole is supposed to help recently released prisoners get their housing and employment in order. Parole is also designed to protect society by requiring former offenders to follow certain conditions. (See Parole Conditions.) The idea is that these conditions will help them succeed and keep them from reoffending.

Do All States Have Parole Systems?

No. Not all states use parole systems. Minnesota, for example, has a determinate sentencing system where prisoners serve two-thirds of their prison sentences behind bars and the remainder on supervised release in the community (assuming good behavior on the part of the inmate). Some states use both sentencing systems—indeterminate (parole) and determinate—depending on the crime. In the federal system, supervised release has generally replaced parole.

When Does an Inmate Become Eligible for Parole?

Parole eligibility differs from place to place; each jurisdiction specifies when a prisoner becomes eligible for consideration.

Minimum and Maximum Sentences

Often, parole boards consider prisoners for parole only after they've completed a certain portion of their prison sentences, such as one-third or one-half of the maximum sentence imposed. If the judge imposes a minimum sentence, some states require an inmate to serve the entire minimum sentence, while others allow an inmate to shave time off their minimum sentence. (See "Good Time" below).

Violent or Repeat Offenses

Factors beyond sentence length also determine the point of parole eligibility. In Louisiana, for example, eligibility dates are based on a number of elements, including:

  • the type of offense (violent, non-violent, sex offense)
  • whether it's the first or a repeat felony, and
  • the length of time between felonies.

In Louisiana, for a first non-violent felony, eligibility may begin after the offender serves one-quarter of the sentence. But an offender with a second felony may have to serve two-thirds of the sentence before becoming eligible. Those with three or more felonies may not be eligible for parole at all. (La. Rev. Stat. § 15-574.4 (2021).)

Good Time

Another factor that may affect eligibility is the conduct of the prisoner while behind bars. In Colorado, for example, an offender may be able to get an earlier eligibility date as a result of good behavior or progress toward goals. Misconduct during imprisonment, on the other hand, may lead to a later eligibility date. (Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 17-22.5-403, -405 (2021).)

Life Sentences

If the maximum sentence length is indeterminate, as with a life sentence, in order to determine eligibility dates, states may look at factors that include:

  • the type of offense
  • the offender's age, and
  • the offender's risk-level designation.

State law may also dictate a straightforward minimum term that must be served before an offender serving a life sentence is parole eligible, such as 30 or 40 years. These situations apply only to life sentences with the possibility of parole.

Parole Decision Process

If a prisoner is eligible for parole, the parole board will follow a prescribed process to determine whether to actually grant this release. Each state uses different procedures.

In Colorado, for instance, after an eligible offender applies for parole, the parole board conducts an application hearing. During the hearing, the board will consider:

  • victim statements
  • the risk of re-offense
  • the offender's participation in treatment
  • the offender's behavior while in prison, and
  • numerous other factors.

The victim of the crime may be able to attend the hearing. (Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 17-2-214, 17-22.5-404 (2021).)

Generally, if parole is denied, the board will indicate when the inmate becomes eligible for another parole review and will list factors the inmate needs to work on. An inmate may be able to appeal a denial.

Contact an Attorney

Parole is complicated, and the laws that govern differ greatly. If you have questions about parole or supervised release, consider consulting a criminal defense attorney who knows the relevant state or federal system. Online research might also provide you with some basics on your state. Another resource for state profiles on parole release can be found on the Robina Institute's site.

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