Is there a federal parole system?

Federal parole was abolished in 1987, but remnants of the system remain.

By , J.D. · UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, Congress eliminated parole for defendants convicted of federal crimes committed after November 1, 1987. Going forward, these offenders receive a period of "supervised release" to be served at the end of the federal prison sentence. Federal prisoners convicted of crimes committed on or before November 1, 1987, remain(ed) under the old federal parole system run by the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC or "federal parole board").

With the abolishment of federal parole, it was expected the USPC's responsibilities would diminish as the number of federal parolees decreased. But over the years, several laws placed new prisoners under its jurisdiction.

This article will provide a brief overview of federal parole and the USPC's continuing role.

Why Eliminate Federal Parole?

Congress eliminated parole, in part, due to concerns of unpredictable outcomes in sentencing. 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.

A new system of sentencing guidelines and supervised release took its place to offer a more predictable and equitable sentencing system.

New and Old Roles of the U.S. Parole Commission

The number of federal parolees continues to decrease. But several laws put the USPC in charge of release decisions for other offenders. The USPC has jurisdiction over the parole or release of the following groups of prisoners.

Old Convictions and Federal Parolees

The first group consists of prisoners mentioned above—those 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 cohort is a relatively small (and decreasing) population of fewer than 2,000 prisoners, but their cases still come up for parole board hearings and require parole supervision when released.

District of Columbia (D.C.) Offenders on Parole or Supervised Release

Since 1997, the federal parole board has also supervised the parole and supervised release of those convicted of felonies and serving sentences in the District of Columbia (D.C.). (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.

Other Federal Offenders (Military, Transfer Treaty, and Witness Protection)

Lastly, the federal parole board has jurisdiction over:

  • those convicted of certain military crimes who serve their sentences in federal prison (the Bureau of Prison or BOP)
  • certain international prisoners whose cases are transferred to the federal government by treaty, and
  • state probationers and parolees who are transferred to federal supervision under the Federal Witness Protection Program.

What Does the U.S. Parole Commission Do?

For the offenders under its jurisdiction, the USPC continues to:

  • make initial release decisions (parole or supervised release)
  • impose conditions of release
  • manage offender risk in the community
  • modify release conditions or revokes release for violations, and
  • discharge offenders from release upon completion.

The USPC also contracts with other agencies to perform services. For instance, the U.S. Office of Probation and Pretrial Services notes that its officers supervise certain individuals released by the USPC.

More Information

If you have questions regarding federal supervised release or parole, speak with a criminal defense attorney whose defense work includes federal crimes. For more information on the history of federal parole and the jurisdiction of the USPC, check out the USPC's website and this report written by the Government Accountability Office.

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