Say you ask several U.S. (United States) citizens whether a person convicted of heinous crimes, such as first-degree murder or child molestation, deserves life imprisonment. Most would probably answer you with a firm “Yes.”
Meanwhile, ask them a follow-up question regarding whether some of those sentenced to life should be eligible for parole after serving time in prison. This time, you will likely get a “Yes, but…” answer.
Suppose you or someone you know got a life sentence with the possibility of release. In that case, understanding the abovementioned concerns can help navigate the prison experience better.
LookUpInmate.org is a one-stop online resource for inmate- and prison-related topics.
This article explains crucial life with parole (LWP) information, including its legal definition, process, and requirements.
Learn more about how LWP works and what to do if you receive this sentence.
What Does Life on Parole Mean?
A life sentence with parole usually refers to a life sentence with a possible release on parole after serving a mandatory minimum prison or jail time.
Why a “Life Sentence” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean for Life
Life sentences can be indeterminate or determinate.
Each state and region has its penal code for sentencing. Generally, the U.S. criminal justice system has two primary kinds of sentencing options:
- Indeterminate sentence: This prison sentence can last for several years or decades. The state parole board examines cases to assess a convicted individual’s parole eligibility.
- Determinate sentence: This sentence imposes a specific time for a prison term. A parole board or any institution cannot review or modify the terms of a determinate sentence.
Only for Serious Crimes
Life sentences typically apply to serious crimes like first- or second-degree murder and aggravated sexual assault.
However, this scenario does not mean that persons convicted of these crimes will necessarily serve a life sentence. Most of the time, a life sentence is the maximum sentence trial courts can impose.
A United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) review listed the following offenses that may warrant life imprisonment:
- Drug trafficking
- Extortion and racketeering crimes
- Sexual abuse, including rape and child pornography
- Firearms-related violations
- Armed robbery and auto-theft cases
Period of Detention Depends on the Severity of the Murder
Judges must decide during sentencing how long a convicted person must wait before they can apply for parole. Their decision depends on many factors, including the following:
- The need to condemn the crime
- The necessity of deterring other similar crimes
- The potential for rehabilitation
- The need to ensure public safety
In defendants guilty of several first-degree murders, the judge may impose consecutive life sentences. This decision means the offender may not be able to apply for parole until they serve decades in prison.
Parole Eligibility Does Not Guarantee Freedom
Once an offender serving a life sentence becomes eligible, they can request the corrections institution’s parole board for an early release.
However, parole eligibility does not guarantee immediate and unconditional parole.
When reviewing parole applications, the authorities’ primary goal is ensuring public safety. Therefore, offenders must usually meet these conditions to receive parole:
- They will not endanger the public by reoffending.
- Their reintegration process includes programs to help them maintain good behavior and citizenship.
Here are various life sentences a guilty defendant might receive from the judge:
- Life without parole (LWOP), natural life, or life without the possibility of parole
- Life with parole (LWP)
- “Virtual” life sentences, for example, 50+ years of imprisonment
Lifer Parole Process
This process refers to the steps and considerations involved when an individual receives a life sentence but is eligible for parole later.
Despite receiving a sentence of life, inmates can present their case and demonstrate rehabilitative efforts for a chance at parole.
Here’s an example of a parole process for those serving life sentences.
In California, offenders serving LWOP qualify for a parole hearing, usually 13 months before their minimum eligible parole date or when they meet the requirements for the youth offender or elderly parole processes.
No offender is guaranteed release on parole just because they face a parole hearing.
The Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) determines whether an offender is eligible for parole.
Those serving determinate sentences may qualify for parole suitability hearing before their release date via the youth offender or elderly parole processes.
Parole proceedings do not determine whether an inmate is guilty or innocent. The parole examiners accept the court’s guilty verdict as fact.
The parole proceeding aims to determine if or when an inmate can be reintegrated into society.
Under normal conditions, the panel shall set a release date unless the severity of the offense, or the nature of current or previous convictions, warrants more extended imprisonment to ensure public safety.
Generally, some of the factors considered in the proceeding by the panel include the following:
- Counseling reports and psychological assessments
- Vocational and educational achievements in prison
- Prison behavior as evidenced by the facility’s disciplinary actions or positive remarks
- Participation in self-help treatment programs, such as addiction recovery programs and anger management classes
- Parole plans, including details about where an inmate would live after release and how they would support themselves
Any person may submit information to the presiding parole board concerning any offender.
A parole board considers every piece of public information before releasing an offender on parole.
Some states let you direct your comments to a parole representative at the prison where the hearing will take place.
Those comments will be included in the offender’s file and might be consulted by future hearing panels.
Meanwhile, communications objecting to an offender’s release on parole may be recorded in the confidential section of the inmate’s case files.
What Happens if the Offender Is Granted Parole?
What Happens if the Offender Is Denied Parole?
An incarcerated individual denied parole by the parole board can usually lodge an administrative appeal. The offender may also appeal a court decision revoking a parole grant.
SUA Sponte Review
“Sua sponte” is Latin for “voluntarily” or “of one’s own accord.” The term indicates that a court acted on its initiative without any prompting from any party.
In California, if the commissioners deny parole to an inmate, the applicant might have to wait 3, 5, or 15 years before they can request parole again.
Suppose an offender does not receive the minimum three-year sentence. In that case, the “sua sponte” principle requires authorities to review the offender’s circumstances automatically to see if an earlier parole hearing is possible.
This review process happens one year after the denial decision.
Petition to Advance
In addition, inmates who got their parole application denied can file a petition to advance (PTA) and ask the board to exercise its discretion to expedite the hearing.
Eligible individuals in California can request a PTA once every three years of their denial duration.
About Life Sentence Hearings
Inmates sentenced to serve LWP usually become eligible for parole after serving half of their original sentence.
Each state has its designated agency that processes life sentence hearings.
The agency’s task involves monitoring parole eligibility, conducting subsequent interviews, and preparing all imprisoned lifers for parole hearings.
Life sentence committees may also perform the following duties:
- Gather supporting documentation about inmates.
- Interview inmates to conduct a risk-needs assessment.
- In preparation for parole board hearings, write in-depth summaries so the parole board thoroughly understands a specific inmate’s case.
- Coordinate with legal representatives for the applicant.
What to Know
Parole hearings for life-sentenced inmates typically involve initial and review proceedings.
Inmates sentenced to serve LWP may become eligible for parole after serving 15 years of the minimum term, after which the initial hearing occurs.
Suppose authorities deny a parole application after the first hearing. In that case, the inmate may request a review hearing after five years or earlier, with the parole board‘s approval.
The initial and review hearings occur before all the parole board members, usually at the parole board’s central office. Additionally, these hearings are recorded and open to the public.
How a Decision Is Made
A life sentence parole hearing considers the following factors before reaching a final decision:
- The inmate’s period of incarceration (whether it was long enough and adequate for rehabilitation)
- Other criminal offenses and convictions
- Behavioral evidence of rehabilitation
- Reaction and response to a previous denial of parole
- Amount of support the applicant gets from family and friends
- Likelihood of employment, except for elderly or disabled inmates
- Plans for short- and long-term housing
- Incarceration relative to similar circumstances
- Sense of remorse and acknowledgment of crime’s negative consequences
- Recognition and understanding of factors that may have contributed to crime
- Conduct during confinement and participation in institutional programs
- Reentry plan
- Willingness to comply with general and specific parole conditions
What Is Parole? How Does Parole Work?
For instance, paroled people must apply for and maintain a stable job, abstain from drugs and alcoholic substances, avoid criminal activity, and check in regularly with their parole officer.
While under parole, inmates may be able to serve part of their remaining prison term under community supervision. The following sections discuss other aspects of parole.
Parole Is Not a Right
In a conventional parole system, parole is not a right but a privilege for convicted individuals with the potential to reintegrate into society.
Some criminal codes provide eligible inmates a right to a parole hearing, but these statutes do not ensure parole. Authorities have the discretion to refuse parole to individuals deemed dangerous for release.
Meanwhile, judges can also sentence criminals to life without parole (LWOP) as an alternative punishment to the death penalty.
Eligibility for Parole
States have varying legislation regarding the types of convictions that qualify inmates for parole. Consequently, they differ on eligibility requirements for those who have served prison sentences.
In New York, people serving indeterminate sentences qualify for parole only after completing their minimum term.
A parole hearing is a procedure for determining whether to release a convicted individual from a correctional facility to complete their sentence under community supervision.
Here’s how parole hearings might take place:
A hearing examiner from the U.S. Parole Commission chairs parole hearings.
Then, a commissioner determines if the inmate is eligible for parole based on the hearing examiner’s reports and transcripts.
The examiner evaluates the case file before the parole decision hearing and advises on the verdict. In most cases, the offender receives notice of the ruling.
Meanwhile, the examiner can refer a case to the Parole Commission without recommendation. Recommendations are provisional, so another examiner could evaluate the case before rendering a final judgment.
It typically takes 21 days for the offender to get a letter detailing the official parole decision.
The prison staff supervises the parolee via a parole officer‘s mandatory visits. Parole services provided by a state’s department of corrections can provide rehabilitation services.
A person currently out on parole enjoys a degree of freedom in return for observing these rules:
- Avoid criminal offenses and interactions with victims.
- Have a stable home and a job.
- Stay within a specified geographical area, or do not leave without permission from the parole officer.
- Abstain from drugs and alcohol.
- Attend alcohol or drug treatment sessions.
The parole officer charged with supervising the parolee can visit the parolee’s residence unannounced to ensure the parolee obeys the parole rules.
Listed below are particular court-ordered rules parolees might need to follow:
- Don’t go to clubs or bars.
- Don’t move or change careers without authorization.
- Pay supervision fees.
- Report in person to probation and parole agencies.
- Avoid contact with people with criminal histories.
- Follow applicable state and local legislation.
- When required, submit to blood or urinalysis tests.
- Do not get involved with the possession or use of firearms or potentially lethal weapons.
The parole board can release the parolee upon finding a reasonable belief that the parolee will become an effective and accountable citizen and that the release is in society’s best interests.
The parolee’s release directive typically shows the terms of a parolee’s release.
Suppose the inmate is denied parole and released on the completion date minus the number of good-time days. In that case, the mandatory release document will specify the conditions of supervision.
A violation happens when an individual on parole breaks or ignores one or more parole conditions.
Types of Violations
A parolee can infringe on their release conditions in various ways, leading to their return to prison or jail.
Some parole offices impose minimal penalties for nonviolent or technical violations, like disregarding curfew, failing a urine drug test, or not appearing at the parole office.
Still, a primary concern for some people on parole is that a minor or technical violation could result in incarceration.
This scenario costs taxpayers and reverses the progress that the parolee has made. For this reason, some officers prefer to impose stricter monitoring measures on parolees instead of recommitting them to corrections facilities.
Meanwhile, high-level criminal offenses, including possessing firearms and harassing victims, usually result in immediate parole revocation.
Various harmless causes could also lead to parolees violating their terms of release. For example, parolees who ride public transportation may miss their bus or get caught in traffic, resulting in non-compliance with curfews or late arrival to court-ordered meetings.
The paroled individual may also fail a drug or alcohol test because of false positives, a contaminated test, or medication or food that triggers a positive result.
Parole officers must consider these factors when determining whether a parolee is eligible for reincarceration for such violations.
Parole Revocation or Violation Hearing
The Supreme Court ruled that the 5th and 14th Amendments’ due process clauses protect an individual’s conditional liberty on parole.
Fair and just parole revocation guidelines follow these legal principles.
Parole hearings enable the parole board to meet the offender, assess their crime, and discuss with the offender the board’s expectations before releasing them.
During the hearing, the board examines the offender’s behavior, completed programs, pending programs, and other relevant information.
The offender’s victims may also appear at the hearing to give testimony. Victims can provide their statements with or without the offender’s presence, depending on their preference.
Life Without Possibility of Parole
Criminals serving an LWOP sentence will remain imprisoned for the rest of their lives. They can only be eligible for conditional release after completing their sentences.
An LWOP is usually the most severe punishment in states that have repealed the death sentence. Juries still imposing the death penalty typically propose that the defendant serve LWOP.
Each state must comply with the due process standards that the U.S. Supreme Court mandated for parole hearings and review procedures. A person applying for parole can call witnesses to testify during the initial hearing.
Additionally, an eligible inmate faces the board to petition their early release. There must be “good cause” to believe the individual is ready to reenter society without jeopardizing public safety.
However, state laws differ regarding parole.
Suppose you have questions or want to understand the law concerning your criminal case. In that case, consider consulting an experienced defense attorney.
A skilled criminal defense lawyer can explain parole rules and regulations in depth, including whether or not board decisions are final.
Searching for resources online can also help you gain valuable knowledge. Information is available on several nonprofit and government websites.
1. How long is a life sentence with parole?
The number of years for each LWP largely depends on each state’s law and existing sentencing guidelines.
For instance, many states have indeterminate sentencing policies that can apply to offenders serving LWP. This provision usually means that parole boards can award parole to offenders serving life terms within a range of incarceration time.
2. Does life without parole mean forever?
Criminals with (LWOP) sentences should remain in the corrections facility for the rest of their lives. They can only be eligible for conditional release once they have served their sentences.
LWOP is the maximum sentence in states that have abolished the death penalty. Many jurisdictions that maintain the death penalty usually recommend that the offender serve LWOP.
3. Is a life sentence 25 years?
This timeframe is only valid for some cases. The minimum term for life imprisonment varies based on the criminal law of the state or federal government.
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on imposing mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles.
Consequently, Terry Branstad, the governor of Iowa at the time, commuted LWOP life sentences. Instead, he extended the minimum term before parole eligibility to 60 years.
4. What does 25 years to life with parole mean?
This sentence means you must serve a 25-year incarceration time before you can apply for parole.
5. When is the offender eligible for parole?
The sentence an offender receives determines whether they are eligible for parole.
The “parole eligibility date” is the earliest an individual can receive parole. This protocol shows that the Parole Commission grants paroles and sets release dates based on the “eligibility” date.
In addition, many jurisdictions give parole to people convicted of particular criminal offenses and have already served a portion of their sentence.
Offenders convicted of high-level crimes, such as arson, first-degree murder, kidnapping, rape, or drug offense, rarely qualify for parole.
6. Is the offender automatically granted parole when they are eligible for parole?
Some criminal laws give eligible inmates a chance at a parole hearing, but these provisions do not guarantee parole. Authorities can still refuse parole to high-risk offenders.
7. What procedures does the parole board follow for these parole release hearings?
The parole process requires the following steps:
1. The court establishes an offender’s parole eligibility according to the judge’s sentence.
Incarcerated individuals must qualify for parole before the release process can continue.
2. An inmate eligible for parole must appear before a parole board that will determine whether returning them to the outside world is safe.
3. Sometimes, the offender’s victim or the victim’s family attends the hearings to testify before the board regarding their experience.
4. Based on the case’s factors, the parole board decides whether to approve or deny an inmate’s parole request.
5. The board usually requires the released parolees to report to their parole officer regularly.
8. What happens if the offender is denied parole release?
You can usually appeal the decision if the parole board denies your request. However, in most cases, you can only apply for parole again after a specific period.
9. Are victims or their surviving family members allowed to testify at the hearing?
Yes. Crime Victims Rights Act (Section 3771 of Title 18 of the United States Code) guarantees the rights of the victims or witnesses to testify during the parole and supervised release processes.
10. Is there anyone whom victims or surviving family members should contact for more assistance?
Victims or surviving family members can contact the U.S. Parole Commission’s Victim Witness Program using the following methods:
- Email: Send electronic messages to USPC.VictimAdv@usdoj.gov.
- Mail: You can communicate with the Parole Commission by sending your letter to this address:
- Victim Witness Specialist
United States Parole Commission
90 K Street NE, 3rd Floor
Washington DC 20530-0001
- Victim Witness Specialist
- Phone: (888) 585-9103 or (202) 346-7018
- Life Sentences in the Federal System
- Parole In New York: Broken, Costly, and Unjust
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Probation and Parole Requirements
- Parole Revocation – A Primer
- Lifer Parole Process
- Why Parole Matters
- sua sponte
- Nothing to Lose? An Examination of Prison Misconduct Among Life Without-Parole Inmates
- Life Without Possibility of Parole
- Iowa’s Governor Commutes Juvenile Life-Without-parole Sentences to 60 Years Flat
- Victim Witness Program