How Does Parole Work?

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Few people know this, but “parole” as a corrective tool has become increasingly controversial over the past decades. 

Beginning with the sentencing reforms of the 1970s, the federal system and many states gradually moved to deterrent- and punishment-oriented policies, reducing parole’s significance as a release option.

Some argue that the push to abolish parole is misguided and that this form of supervision — when done right — can help reduce crime and prison costs.

While others, citing tragic incidents where parolees committed violent offenses, argue that parole needs to be abolished. Regardless of your views, this controversy requires clarification on how parole works.  

If you relate to this topic personally — say, you or your loved one faces parole — you likely want to know this release mechanism’s eligibility requirements, rules, processes, and potential outcomes. provides crucial information regarding inmates and the correctional system in the United States (U.S.).

This article discusses what parole is and how it works. Read on to learn more about parole’s implications for you or your loved one in jail or prison.

Parole in the U.S.: Eligibility, Rules, and Violation Hearings

Statutes regarding parole eligibility, regulations, and violation proceedings vary depending on the jurisdiction handling the criminal case. 

Each jurisdiction has its own division or committee administering parole services. 

The U.S. Parole Commission (USPC) decides on the parole prospects of eligible federal and District of Columbia (Washington, DC) inmates.

On the other hand, states have parole boards that manage offenders’ transition to release and their post-release supervision. 

What Is Parole?

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At its core, parole is a period of supervised, early release from incarceration. However, upon a closer look, parole involves three distinct sets of tasks and activities:

  • Parole release: Parole boards or commissions have the discretionary authority to release eligible inmates before the original expiration of their sentences.
  • Parole supervision: A specific public agency — the USPC for federal prisoners and the state department of corrections for state offenders — supervises inmates during their conditional release from incarceration. 
  • Parole revocation: Parole boards can suspend or revoke the conditional release of a parolee who violates the release conditions.

The Parole Process

Parole procedures vary depending on the jurisdiction and its sentencing policies and practices. Still, the differences are usually minor and mainly involve technical considerations. 

Here’s an example from the state of Georgia to give you an idea:

1. Automatic consideration: The State Board of Pardons and Paroles automatically considers inmates serving felony sentences for parole without requiring an application.

2. Ineligible groups: Inmates of a specific group, such as those serving nonlife sentences for serious violent crimes (for example, rape, aggravated child molestation, and armed robbery), are ineligible for parole consideration.

3. Eligibility guidelines: Most convicted individuals become eligible for parole after serving a third of their jail or prison sentence. That said, authorities rarely grant parole at the initial eligibility date. Legal appeals or actions do not affect an inmate’s parole eligibility.

4. Decision: Parole decisions require a majority vote by the parole board. The board may set a tentative parole month (TPM) or refuse parole. However, the committee can still change its decision before the release date.

For instance, while a TPM is a part of the parole procedure, it’s not a final release decision. The board reviews the inmate’s case file and decides whether to schedule a parole release date.

5. Pre-parole evaluation: Parole investigators examine arrest and court records, interview the applicant, and gather data to create an in-depth report on the inmate.

This information includes personal and legal history, institutional behavior, and program participation. Authorities may also solicit input from judges, district attorneys, victims, and the community during the parole proceedings.

6. Work release and program referral: Upon completing work release and rehabilitation programs, inmates may be conditionally recommended for parole.

The Basics of Parole Explained

As shown above, parole refers to releasing incarcerated individuals before their maximum court-mandated sentence ends.

Two kinds of parole — mandatory and discretionary — differ in how the release is granted:

  • Mandatory system: This program automatically releases individuals to parole, i.e., without a hearing, when specific legal requirements are met. This parole type applies to individuals serving time for minor offenses. 

Mandatory parole also refers to automatically releasing inmates to serve a predetermined portion of a court-appointed sentence, e.g., the last six months, outside prison walls and under community corrections.

  • Discretionary system: In contrast, this parole system grants parole based on a parole board’s decision. The board grants or withholds parole according to its evaluation of each case.

Parole Is Not a Right

The Court considers probation and parole government-granted statutory privileges. That’s why early parole cases held that the government did not have to undergo due process in approving or revoking parole either.

In Ughbanks v. Armstrong (1908), the Court ruled that parole is not a constitutional right but a gift from the government to the incarcerated individual. 

Good Behavior

Good conduct or behavior is a crucial element of good time credit. This earned credit reduces eligible inmates’ total incarceration time.

Authorities grant good time credit for program participation, good behavior, or exceptional deeds.

Montana, Utah, and Hawaii are the only states in the U.S. without a good time credit system.

Risk to Public Safety

The parole board‘s evaluation of an offender should extend beyond the offender’s prison behavior. The board must also consider the likelihood that an offender will comply or reoffend after rejoining the public.

If the board determines that the applicant is a risk for release, it withholds parole, stating its reasons. 

Eligibility for Parole

The board usually has a formula for setting the earliest parole eligibility

Parole eligibility (but not necessarily release) may occur after the inmate completes serving a percentage of the minimum or maximum sentence or after the entire mandatory minimum, depending on the state.

The Parole Commission’s mechanism for assessing federal inmates’ parole eligibility starts at sentencing. This eligibility usually occurs once the offender has completed one-third of their sentence unless the court mandates a minimum imprisonment time or an indeterminate sentence.

For instance, a convicted individual serving a term or life sentence of 60 years can qualify for parole after completing 1/3 of that time, which is 20 years (60 years x 1/3 = 10 years).

What Offenses Are Eligible?

As shown above, parole eligibility also considers the type of offense for which an applicant got arrested. For example, in Texas, the following crimes are ineligible for parole:

  • Aggravated sexual assault
  • Continuous sexual abuse of a young child or children
  • Murder of a fireman or a peace officer on official duty

When Can Inmates Become Eligible for Parole?

The parole eligibility date is the earliest an inmate can get parole. The parole committee grants parole and arranges release dates around the eligibility date.

Parole Hearings

A parole hearing is a procedure for determining whether the court should release a convicted person from custody to finish their sentence under parole surveillance in the community.

Here’s how federal inmates undergo parole proceedings:

  1. A hearing examiner from the USPC presides over the session during parole hearings.
  2. A USPC officer determines whether an inmate qualifies for parole release based on the report submitted by the hearing examiner.
  3. Before a parole decision hearing, an examiner analyzes the case file and suggests the decision. Often, the offender receives notification of the decision.
  4. Examiners may refer cases to the Parole Commission for further review if the examiner did not submit a recommendation. Recommendations presented during the session are preliminary. The case is reviewed by a different examiner before a final determination is made.

It usually takes 21 days for the offender to receive a notification of the official parole decision.

What Is the Role of the Victim?

Section 3771 of Title 18 of the United States Code (Crime Victims Rights Act) protects the rights of the victims or witnesses to give testimony during parole and supervision processes.

Victim Attendance at Parole Hearing

The offender’s victims may also testify at the hearing. Victims can contribute statements with or without the offender’s presence, whichever they prefer.

If Parole Is Granted

If parole is granted, people transitioning from incarceration to reintegration face a crucial turning point. 

This decision represents a chance for renewed hope and opportunities and marks the beginning of more accountability and responsibility. 

Parole facilitates a carefully monitored path toward successful reentry into society, where strict adherence to release conditions and ongoing support are essential to achieving a positive outcome for the former inmate.

Parole Agent

These law enforcement officials perform duties linked with supervising a criminal’s parole, including facilitating reentry into society and tracking parolee activities to ensure the offender’s compliance with the conditions of parole.

The parole officers roles usually include the following:

  • Minimize risks to public safety by closely tracking paroled persons’ activities.
  • Examine an inmate’s mental health, criminal record, and prison conduct to see whether they deserve parole.
  • Proactively restrict parolees’ harmful activities, such as enforcing curfews and mandating drug and alcohol abuse counseling sessions.

Deciding Factors in Granting Parole

Factors influencing the likelihood of probation and parole grants include:

  • Objections or recommendations from the candidate’s probation or parole officer
  • Federal or state law and sentencing standards
  • The nature and level of offense
  • Psychological assessments
  • The victim’s opinion

Parole Supervision

Parole supervision serves as a surveillance tool and a social service mechanism, ideally as a preventative measure against new crimes.

Parole supervision functions as a surveillance tool by monitoring and sanctioning those breaking conditions of release. It also discourages more severe reoffending.  

Meanwhile, parole supervision works as a social service mechanism by using incentives and rules to engage former inmates in positive activities, such as employment and drug rehabilitation, and to place ex-prisoners in programs that support reentry transitions.

Parole Conditions

Many inmates released after incarceration are subject to a period of federal or state parole supervision. They will have to follow general and specific parole conditions.

Consequently, you must determine if a policy or statute in your jurisdiction directly addresses, sets limits, or outlines expectations regarding the imposition of parole conditions. 

Conditions of Parole and Special Conditions of Parole Are Defined As Specific and General

Many jurisdictions have “standard” or “general” conditions applied in all cases of parole and “special” rules determined based on the specific situation of the individual offender. Here’s an example from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR):

General Conditions of Parole

Parolees under the authority of the CDCR generally have to do the following:

  • Report to the parole agent within one day of release from prison or jail
  • Notify the parole agent if the job’s location changes or get a new job
  • Always give the designated parole agent the residence and workplace addresses
  • Obey all laws
  • Stay away from firearms or anything that resembles real guns, bullets, or other weapons

Specific Conditions

Courts impose these special rules to supplement the general conditions of parole. These conditions relate to the inmate’s commitment offense and criminal history and may be set by the board of parole hearings, the court, or the defendant’s parole agent.

What Are Some Common Terms of Parole?

Parole entails many conditions. These circumstances vary greatly depending on the person’s crime and institutional behavior. 

These requirements also change depending on where you were convicted and in which corrections system. However, some common conditions apply to parole.

If you are on parole, you must comply with the following release terms:

  • Keep a stable job and a home
  • Refrain from using alcohol or drugs
  • Report to a community supervisor or parole officer regularly
  • Avoid leaving a specific geographical area without permission
  • Attend drug or alcohol recovery sessions
  • Steer clear of criminal activity
  • Abstain from contacting any victims of your crime

What Happens if One of These Terms Is Violated?

Parolees can violate the conditions of parole in many ways, which could result in prison reentry.

Some parole agencies enforce minimal penalties for technical or minor violations, like missing curfew, failing a urine drug test, or avoiding visiting the parole office.

Still, a significant concern for parolees is the risk of reincarceration for minor infractions.

Parole Violations

Violations occur when a parolee breaches or disregards a parole requirement.

The violation can be a criminal act — like committing a felony — or a technical one, like when the inmate leaves the state or county without their parole officer’s permission.

The period a person serves in prison before becoming eligible for parole may vary depending on the local jurisdiction’s parole policies. 

The USPC grants federal inmates parole and issues them the conditions of release. The inmate must abide by these rules to avoid prison reentry.

As shown above, the conditions of release generally mandate the parolee to abide by laws and adhere to offense-specific requirements, like abstaining from drinking excessively.

The conditions include technical requirements, like informing the court of a change of address or new employment.

Noncompliance with parole requirements can result in a parole violation. The board or commission decides whether or not the offender returns to prison or jail for violating release conditions.

Types of Violations

As mentioned, a parolee committing a crime goes against their release orders, resulting in a potential parole forfeiture. 

Parole agents can impose stricter conditions for petty or procedural violations like unlawful alcohol use instead of recommending revocation (suspension of conditional release).

Instead of sending a parolee back to the institution due to substance abuse, the parole officer may refer the person to a counseling session and require proof of attendance.

Should the person on parole fail to satisfy the requirement, or if the parole violation is severe, the authorities will likely pursue parole revocation.

The court can order various punishments if the individual on parole gets convicted of a parole offense, depending on the conditions of parole disobeyed. The consequences of violation may include the following:

  • Fines: The parole violator must pay a court-specified amount for the breach.
  • Increased parole term: The court may extend the parolee’s parole period. However, it cannot prolong the parole term past the original sentence.
  • Revocation: The board or commission can revoke or suspend the person’s parole, causing the parolee to return to institutional custody for the remainder of their original sentence.
  • Arrest warrant: The court can serve a summons for the parolee’s arrest.
  • Criminal charges: Parolees who commit new crimes will likely be prosecuted for their offenses.

Parole Revocation or Violation Hearing

Parole revocation typically involves preliminary or initial and final revocation hearings. 

The initial hearing is a preliminary review to see if probable cause exists to suspect the parolee of breaking their release conditions.

An alleged offender must defend themselves at a final revocation hearing if probable cause exists.

In a formal parole violation hearing, the deciding party, such as a judge, parole commissioner, or parole board member, will assess the violation’s nature and consequences and determine whether to remand the parolee to a corrections facility.

In some cases, both proceedings (preliminary and revocation hearings) take place simultaneously.

The parolee sent back to prison may spend weeks, months, years, or the rest of the original sentence imprisoned, depending on the jurisdiction’s guidelines. Fortunately, ex-parolees may become eligible for a parole hearing following a specified period.

Parole ends when the parole term ends, a jurisdiction terminates the conditional release, or the parolee moves abroad or gains immigration status. 

Moreover, even though parole is temporary, an immigrant recipient may have to stay in the U.S. beyond the initial parole period. Additionally, such a person can apply for re-parole within the U.S.

Getting Help

All states should follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s due process guidelines for parole consideration. Individuals on parole can call witnesses to support their case at a parole hearing.

However, laws on parole differ depending on the jurisdiction handling their case. 

Suppose you need legal advice or want to understand how the state or federal parole guidelines apply to your criminal case. In that case, consider consulting an experienced criminal defense lawyer. 

A competent defense attorney can discuss the rules and regulations in greater detail, such as whether parole decisions are final. 

Researching online resources can help you gain relevant knowledge. Information is available on various government and nonprofit websites.

For federal cases, you can contact the USPC by consulting its case managers or sending mail to the commission using this address:

U.S. Parole Commission
90 K Street, NE, 3rd Floor
Washington, D.C. 20530-0001

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How is parole different from probation in the U.S.?

Parole and probation are two different forms of post-prison supervision.
Parole is given to individuals who have served a portion of their jail or prison sentences.
Meanwhile, probation is often an alternative sentence to imprisonment.

2. What about work furlough?

Work furlough allows inmates to leave the facility temporarily for work or vocational training.

3. How long is most parole?

The answer to this question depends primarily on which database you examine. 

Nonprofit research organization Urban Institute noted that parolees spend an average of 26 months under post-release supervision.

4. Can you travel while on parole in the U.S.?

People under parole supervision must receive approval from their community supervisors before leaving a court-assigned geographical location. Those under community supervision typically have to answer these questions:

  • Why and when do you plan to go?
  • When and how do you plan to return?
  • Who will be your traveling companion?
  • Where do you plan to stay during the trip?

5. What does it mean to be sentenced with parole?

Defendants who received sentences with parole will be released after serving a court-specified amount of time in correctional facilities.


  1. A Handbook for New Parole Board Members
  2. Why Parole Matters
  3. Parole Commission
  4. The Parole Process in Georgia
  5. Ughbanks v. Armstrong
  6. Does Parole Work?
  7. Frequently Asked Questions
  8. Parole in Texas
  9. Victim Witness Program
  10. What is a Parole Officer?
  11. Parole Conditions
  12. Does Parole Supervision Work?

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