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The conditional release of a person convicted of a crime prior to the expiration of that person's term of imprisonment, subject to both the supervision of the correctional authorities during the remainder of the term and a resumption of the imprisonment upon violation of the conditions imposed.
Parole is the early supervised release of a prison inmate. It is usually regulated by statutes, and these provisions vary from state to state. Parole boards created by statute possess the authority to release prisoners from incarceration. Parolees have no constitutional right to representation in parole hearings and parole revocation hearings, but many states provide representation to impoverished inmates and parolees in such hearings.
Parole was first used in the United States in New York in 1876. By the turn of the century, parole was prevalent in the states. In 1910 Congress established the U.S. Parole Commission and gave it the responsibility of evaluating and setting the release dates for federal prisoners.
Parole is used for several reasons. It is less expensive to supervise a parolee than to incarcerate a prisoner. A person on parole has an opportunity to contribute to society. At the same time, society still receives some protection because the parolee is supervised and can be revoked for the most minor of transgressions. Parole is also a method of rehabilitation, because it gives convicts supervision and guidance during their reentry into society.
Although parole laws vary from state to state, there are some common practices. In many states, the governor is charged with appointing a parole board. The duties of the board are to study the case histories of persons eligible for parole, deliberate on the record, conduct hearings, grant parole, craft the conditions for parole, issue warrants for persons charged with violation of parole, conduct revocation hearings, and grant final discharge to parolees.
States may charge parolees a small monthly fee to offset the costs of supervision. For example, in Kentucky, a person on parole for a felony must pay $10 per month while under active supervision, but no more than a total of $2,500; for a misdemeanor parole, the fee is not less than $10 per month and no more than $500 in all. Failure to pay these fees, without a good reason for the failure, may result in revocation of the parole, but revocation may not be based on failure to pay a fee unless the board first has held a hearing on the matter.
For lesser offenses, the determination of eligibility for parole is often left to the parole board. Parole will be ordered only if it serves the best interests of society. Parole is not considered to be a method of reducing sentences or awarding a pardon.
For more serious offenses, most states limit the discretion of the parole board. Parole statutes in these states generally identify a specified period of imprisonment that must be served before a prisoner is eligible for parole. The time periods are often a percentage of the prison sentence, and they can vary according to the crime for which the prospective parolee was convicted. In Arkansas, for example, persons convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping, aggravated robbery, rape, and causing a catastrophe are not eligible for parole until they have served 70 percent of their prison sentence (Ark. Code Ann. § 16-93-611). For lesser felonies, persons must serve at least one-third of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole (Ark. Code Ann. § 16-93-608).
Parole has come under increasing attack since the 1970s. A powerful "truth in sentencing" movement has been successful in many states. Truth in sentencing is a catchphrase used to describe the notion that convicted criminals should serve the entire prison sentence handed down by the court. Many states have abolished parole entirely. In Virginia, for example, a felon who was committed after January 1, 1995, is ineligible for parole (Va. Code Ann. § 53.1-165.1). A felon may have prison time reduced from his sentence for good behavior, but in any case, the felon must serve at least 85 percent of the prison sentence.
At least 27 states and the District of Columbia now require violent offenders to serve 85 percent of their prison sentence before obtaining early release. Some of these states, like Virginia, have abolished parole entirely; others still allow parole for offenders as long as they have served the required time of their sentence. An additional 13 states, like Arkansas, require violent offenders to serve a substantial portion of their minimum sentence before being eligible for release. Fourteen states have abolished parole board release for all offenders, with at least six other states abolishing parole board release for certain violent or felony offenders.
On the federal level, Congress abolished parole in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 (Pub. L. No. 98-473 § 218(a)(5), 98 Stat. 1837, 2027 [repealing 18 U.S.C.A. § 4201 et seq.]). Federal prisoners may, however, earn a maximum of 54 days good time credit per year against their sentence (18 U.S.C.A. § 3624(b)).
The issue of victim's rights has also become important when dealing with parole. Most states now have laws requiring the victim or victim's families to be notified of a parole hearing. According to the National Center for the Victims of Crime (NCVC), as of 2000, 46 states and the District of Columbia required the victim or victim's families to be given a notice of a parole application or hearing at their request. Many states have gone further and required that a victim or their family be notified of their right to attend a parole hearing, the right to submit a victim impact statement, and the earliest estimated parole eligibility date.
Most states also allow victims the opportunity to comment on the offender's request for parole. The NCVC overview says that as of 2000, 46 states allow victims to submit impact testimony in person, 42 states permit written victim impact statements to be submitted, six states authorize the submission of audiotaped statements, seven states permit victims to submit videotaped statements, three states allow victims to be heard via teleconferencing, and eight states authorize the victim's counsel or representative to present a statement on the victim's behalf. Under certain circumstances, parolees may also be required to pay restitution as a condition of their parole.
Several important Supreme Court decisions were handed down at the end of the 1990s and beginning of the twenty-first century concerning parole. In 1998, in Spencer v. Kemna, 523 U.S. 1, 118 S. Ct. 978, 140 L. Ed. 2d 43 (1998), the Supreme Court ruled against a man who filed a petition for habeas corpus after his sentence had expired challenging allegedly unconstitutional parole revocation procedures. The Court agreed with the district court that the completion of his sentence made his habeas corpus petition moot. But the Court held that a presumption that criminal convictions have collateral consequences, which the Court had previously said could be considered in habeas challenge to propriety of conviction even after habeas petitioner was released from prison, could not be extended to revocations of parole, in order to satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement of the habeas corpus petition of the Constitution.
In the 2000 decision, United States v. Johnson, 529 U.S. 53, 120 S. Ct. 1114, 146 L. Ed. 2d. 236 (2000), the Court ruled unanimously that a period of supervised release cannot commence until the prisoner is actually released from incarceration. The case involved a defendant whose convictions were vacated and his prison sentence reduced to a term less than that already served. The defendant moved for reduction of his supervised release term by the amount of extra time served on the vacated convictions. But the Court ruled that when a statute provides that a supervised release term does not commence until an individual is released from imprisonment, the word "released" means freed from confinement.
In another 2000 ruling, Garner v. Jones, 529 U.S. 244, 120 S. Ct. 1362, 146 L. Ed. 2d 236 (2000), the Court determined that retroactive application of Georgia's amended parole rule, changing the frequency of required parole reconsideration hearings for inmates serving life sentences from every three years to every eight years, did not necessarily violate the ex post facto Clause of the Constitution. In its 6–3 decision, the Court emphasized that the States must have "due flexibility" in designing their parole procedures. There was no showing that the change in the law lengthened the inmate's time of actual imprisonment, the Court noted, and board had discretion to act in accordance with its assessment of each inmate's likelihood of release between reconsideration dates.
Bamonte, Thomas J. 1993. "The Viability of Morrissey v. Brewer and the Due Process Rights of Parolees and Other Conditional Releasees." Southern Illinois University Law Journal 18.
"Forum: Parole and Sentencing Reform in Virginia." 1995. Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law 2.
National Center for the Victims of Crime. 2000. "Victim's Rights at Parole: A Statutory Overview Summary." Available online at <http://www.ncvc.org/policy/issues/parole> (accessed August 5, 2003).
Zechman, Joseph A. 1988. "Constitutional Law—Due Process in Federal Parole Rescission Hearings—Green v. McCall, 822 F.2d 284 (2d Cir. 1987)." Temple Law Review 61.