Under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, Congress eliminated parole for federal defendants convicted of crimes committed after November 1, 1987. But while federal prisoners can no longer look forward to parole release, they may nevertheless earn reduced terms for good behavior. And, even though federal parole has been all but eliminated, at the time of sentencing, judges can add a period of "supervised release" to be served at the end of a defendant's prison sentence.
(For more on this area of law, see Probation and Supervised Release in Federal Court.)
Congress eliminated parole in part because of a fear of unpredictable outcomes. A prisoner given a 20-year sentence could sometimes be released on parole after only a few short years. Even though the parole board had to consider each prisoner's likelihood of committing another crime, Congress was concerned about the release of potentially dangerous convicts who hadn't spent enough time behind bars.
Even though federal prisoners sentenced in recent history can't get parole, they may still earn early release for "exemplary" behavior. For example, progress toward a high-school diploma or the equivalent may shave time off a sentence. Prisoners serving sentences of more than a year but less than life can earn up to 54 days per year off their sentences for good behavior. (18 U.S.C. § 3624(b).)
The Sentencing Reform Act didn't stop judges from sentencing defendants to supervised release, which is served immediately after a prison term. Federal prisoners under this form of supervision can be returned to prison for violations. The federal parole board (discussed more below) is responsible for prisoners who are out on supervised release.
In addition to managing the federal supervised release program, the U.S. Parole Commission oversees the parole of four groups of prisoners.
The first group consists of prisoners who committed crimes before November 1, 1987. The elimination of parole did not apply to these prisoners because they were legally eligible for parole hearings at the time of their convictions. This is a relatively small (and decreasing) population of fewer than 2,000 prisoners, but their cases still come up for parole board hearings, and they require parole supervision when released.
This population is serving longer sentences (usually for particularly violent crimes), and its members tend to have higher recidivism rates, meaning that they are more likely to commit new crimes than other prisoners once released from prison. Because of this, the federal parole board may conduct multiple hearings over an extended time period before granting this kind of prisoner parole, if granting it at all.
Since 1997, the federal parole board has also supervised the parole of those convicted of felonies in and serving sentences in the District of Columbia. (Offenders who are released to nearby states are supervised by state parole officers in those jurisdictions). Parole violation hearings are handled by the federal parole authority, or the state equivalent if a state is supervising the prisoner.
The federal parole board also supervises two other groups: those convicted of certain military crimes who serve their sentences in federal prison, and certain international prisoners whose cases are transferred to the federal government by treaty.