8.10. Parole

David Carter

While the process of parole is unique to all of the other community sanctions we have discussed so far in this section, individuals on parole are “held” in the community. Parole is the release (under conditions) of an individual after they have served a portion of their sentence incarcerated. It is also accompanied by the threat of re-incarceration if they deviate from those conditions, or commit a new offense. As with most concepts in our legal system, the roots of parole can be traced back to concepts from England and Europe. However, parole today has evolved greatly, based on American values and concepts. Parole in the United States was first conceptualized at the inaugural American Prison Association meeting in 1870. There was much support for the ideals of reform in corrections in America at the time. Advocates for reform helped to create the concept of parole, which was famously pioneered at the Elmira Reformatory, alongside the concept of indeterminate sentencing. By the mid-1940s, all states had a parole authority within their departments of correction. In this way, parole is different than probation, which often operates under the judicial branch. Parole typically operates under the executive branch and is aligned with departments of corrections, as parole is a direct extension of prison terms and release.

Types of Parole

Today, there are two basic types of parole in the United States: discretionary and mandatory. Discretionary parole is when an individual is eligible for parole or goes before a parole board prior to their mandatory release date (their maximum sentence). It is at the discretion of the parole board to grant parole (with conditions) for these individuals. These prisoners are generally prisoners with good behavioral records in prison, who have completed all required programming. If an individual is not deemed ready for release at the first parole date, they will generally continue to receive periodic parole hearings, until they reach their maximum sentence (at which point, they will be released without conditions.) Discretionary parole saw a marked decrease starting in the early 1990s, in line with the “punitive turn” in American justice; however, alongside the COVID-19 pandemic and overflowing prisons, there has been a slight increase in recent years. [1]

Mandatory parole, which is used within some state systems, occurs when a prisoner hits a particular point in time in their sentence. Under this model, the offender must be paroled, regardless of the recommendations of a parole board, even though they are still subject to certain conditions. Mandatory parole is NOT the same as mandatory release, which occurs when an individual reaches their maximum sentence.

Parole Success

Parole is widely regarded to reflect a “broken system,” due to low rates of success (or high rates of revocation, rearrest, and reincarceration). Successful parole completion rates hover around 50%, in any given year. The same issues that mar probation are also seen in parole: technical violations, new charges, absconding, and other infractions. All in all, such low success rates may reflection offenders’ unmet criminogenic needs, poor parole supervision, or conversely, overly-vigilant parole monitoring. In any case, many agree that it is in the interest of parole authorities to rectify the failures of parole, as it is a prison release valve much needed by the system itself. One way that states have innovated to overcome high failure rates is through “non-revocable parole.” The basic premise of this model is more lenient supervision: as long as parolees do not violate their terms of parole, their parole will be solely on paper, with no parole officer check-ins. While this model does seek to address high rates of prison returns among parolees, it is not appropriate for the many parolees who fail due multiple unmet needs, such as housing, mental health treatment, and employment or educational access.

Other Forms of Early Release: Good-Time

When an inmate is sent to prison, two clocks begin. The first clock is forward counting and continues until their last day. The second clock starts at the end of their sentence and starts to work backward, as the inmate accumulates “good days.” Good days are days that an offender is free from incidents, write-ups, tickets, or other ways to describe rule infractions. For instance, for every week that an offender earns no violations, they might get two days taken off of the end of their sentence. When these two times converge, good-time release kicks in for them. At the same time, early release may still be conditioned by truth-in-sentencing legislation, or the “85% rule”. Many states have laws in place that stipulate that an inmate is not eligible for release until they hit 85% of their original sentence. Thus, even if the “good time clock” indicates that are eligible for release at an earlier date, inmates would only receive early release once they have achieved 85% of their sentence. Recently, states have begun to soften these 85% rules, as another valve to reduce crowding issues. Unlike individuals who are paroled, those enjoying good-time release are not necessarily subject to any conditions.

  1. Kaeble, D. (2021). Parole and Probation in the United States, 2020 . Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs 


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Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by David Carter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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