What Is Parole? How Does Parole Work?

Look here for information on the parole process.

By , J.D. UC Law San Francisco
Updated 8/31/2021

Parole is conditional freedom for a prison inmate. The prisoner (called a "parolee") gets out from behind bars but must live up to a series of responsibilities. A parolee who doesn't follow the rules risks going back into custody (prison).

This article discusses what parole means and how it generally works, but laws and procedures can vary from state to state.

Parole Basics

Under parole as most people think of it—sometimes called "discretionary" parole—an inmate gets out of prison early and serves some part of the remaining sentence under parole supervision.

Parole Is Not a Right

Under the traditional parole system, 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, typical laws don't absolutely guarantee parole itself. Authorities retain the discretion to deny parole to prisoners they deem dangerous. (Often, a parole board that denies parole to a prisoner sets another parole hearing at some later point, sometimes after several years.)

Eligibility for Parole

State law can provide that some kinds of convictions make prisoners ineligible for parole or eligible only after a very long prison sentence. Indeed, life without parole, regularly referred to as "LWOP," is a common alternative sentence to the death penalty.

Parole Hearings

Many prisoners do, however, become eligible for parole. Commonly, after a parole board finds that a prisoner is eligible, the inmate appears at a parole hearing. If granted parole, the parolee is released and lives free in society but under the continued supervision of the prison authority. (Parole decisions can involve multiple steps—for instance, review by a panel from the parole board and then review by the whole board. In a few states, the state governor gets to review the parole decision and might have the option to reverse at least some parole grants.)

Parole Supervision

Often, 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. Some common parole 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.

Under a typical parole system, the 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 use.

Parole Violation

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).

Types of Violations

Violating parole by committing a crime can often land parolees back in prison or in jail. Some of the more minor or technical violations, such as prohibited alcohol use, could result in parole authorities imposing stricter or additional conditions rather than immediately commencing back-to-prison (revocation) proceedings. For instance, a parole 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 serious enough, the authorities may begin revocation proceedings.

Parole Revocation or Violation Hearing

At a typical hearing, the decision-maker, whether a judge, the parole board, or part of the parole board, will consider the nature and circumstances of the violation. (Parole violation proceedings can involve multiple steps, such as a hearing before a parole officer and then before the board itself.) The decision-maker determines whether to send the parolee back into custody. Depending on the rules of the jurisdiction, the prisoner may spend weeks, months, years, or the remainder of the original sentence back behind bars. The prisoner may also be granted a new parole hearing set to occur after serving some specified time.

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 for online resources. Some government and nonprofit websites provide helpful information.

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