Eligibility for Parole

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

By , Attorney · William Mitchell College of Law
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

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.

What Is 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 isn't guaranteed; release is up to a parole board.

What Does Parole Eligibility Mean?

Being eligible for parole isn't the same as being granted parole. Most states require inmates to serve a certain portion of their sentence before parole will even be considered. Once eligible for parole, the inmate can go through the process of asking for parole. Every state's parole application process is different—with some requiring an extensive application and hearing process and others being more of a formality.

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. And not all crimes are eligible for parole.

Sentence Length

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).

Convicted Offense

The severity of the current offense (and, sometimes, previous offenses) often affects when or if an inmate is eligible for parole.

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.

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 (2022).)

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 (2022).)

Life Sentences

If the maximum sentence length is 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.

What Is a Parole Eligibility Date?

When an inmate enters prison, prison officials will often calculate possible parole eligibility dates based on the inmate's record and state law. This date typically represents the earliest the inmate can be released IF granted parole. And the date can be pushed out for inmates who commit disciplinary violations or crimes in prison or who don't complete the eligibility requirements (such as completing counseling).

As an inmate's parole eligibility date approaches, the inmate will typically start preparing for the parole board hearing. The inmate might need to fill out forms stating why they should be granted parole. And the parole board will likely request court records, prison documents, and interview transcripts.

What Is the Process of Applying for Parole?

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.

Parole Decision-Making Process

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 (2022).)

Parole Board Decision

After the parole hearing, the board will decide whether to grant or deny parole.

If the board grants parole, a few more steps must be completed before the inmate is released. For instance, the inmate will need to agree to conditions of parole and sign a parole agreement. And a parole officer must be assigned to monitor the inmate's transition into the community and supervise the inmate's compliance with the parole agreement.

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.

Do All States Have Parole Systems?

No. Not all states use parole systems. Some states use a different system of supervised release after a person completes their prison sentence. For example, a state might require inmates to serve a set portion of their prison sentences behind bars (say two-thirds) and the remainder on supervised release in the community (one-third). In the federal system, supervised release has generally replaced parole. While parole is generally at the discretion of a parole board, supervised release is usually required once an inmate meets the statutory requirements.

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, such as checking out the website for a state's parole board.

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