Parole Definition in Law

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A report from the United States (U.S.) Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) showed that approximately 3,745,000 adults were under community supervision (probation or parole) in 2021. 

The data indicate that understanding parole is a crucial task for many.

Say you or a loved one is a parolee or a candidate for parole. You may want to learn more about how the law defines and governs the process. is a free, all-in-one online resource for finding information regarding inmates and corrections facilities countrywide. 

This article discusses parole, including its legal definition, eligibility requirements, conditions, violations, and penalties. 

Continue reading to learn more about how parole affects jail or prison terms.

Parole Basics

While under parole, offenders can get out of prison early and serve their remaining term under community supervision.

Below are some essential words and phrases to remember regarding parole:

  • Parole board: The members of this committee are responsible for holding parole hearings, evaluating parole violation reports, assessing inmates’ parole eligibility, and other parole decision-making procedures.

The U.S. Parole Commission presides over parole grants and revocations for people under its jurisdiction in the criminal justice system.

However, states usually have their own board of pardons and parole handling the process.

  • Parolees: This term refers to those who have earned parole grants from the parole board.
  • Parole officers: These professionals have duties linked with managing a criminal’s parole, such as facilitating reentry into society and monitoring activities to ensure the parolee’s adherence to the conditions of parole.
  • Parole conditions: These guidelines regulate the parole process. They also allow parole boards to render just and fair rulings regarding parole that coincide with public safety concerns. 

The following sections discuss the other elements of parole:

What Does Parole Mean in Law?

Parole is the conditional release of incarcerated people from correctional facilities before their original release dates. 

This early release enables inmates to return to the community and complete the court-issued punishment under the supervision of a parole officer.

Situations affecting parole include the following:

  • Institution misconduct: This situation can lead to withheld or forfeited good time (time off earned during one’s sentence) but does not necessarily disqualify the applicant for parole.
  • Court case on appeal: This situation upholds the right of U.S. citizens to appeal their convictions and sentences.
  • Detainer: This situation refers to the release of a prisoner into the custody of another jurisdiction.
  • An alien subject to deportation: This status grants parole to an alien on the condition they leave the country and never return.

Parole Is Not a Right

In the U.S., inmates do not have the right to parole. Instead, parole is a privilege parole authorities grant or deny based on legal criteria.

In a traditional parole system, parole is for offenders capable of reintegrating into society.

Some criminal statutes grant eligible inmates access to a parole hearing, but these laws do not guarantee parole. Authorities can still deny parole to offenders considered high-risk.

Why Is It Called Parole?

The term “parole” originates from the French word for “word,” since a reformed inmate must “give their word” that they will obey laws if released early.

That said, parolees must do more than just obey the law. In most cases, they must also maintain gainful employment, abstain from drugs and alcohol, and regularly report to a parole officer

Suppose the parolee fails to meet these conditions. In that case, authorities could revoke their parole, sending the parolee back to jail or prison.

Differences Between Parole and Probation

Individuals tend to use the terms “parole” and “probation” interchangeably.  However, distinguishing between these jail or prison sentences is crucial for offenders since the terms specify how inmates should behave and how their incarceration time may affect them.

Additionally, defendants who face criminal charges and subsequent convictions should understand the similarities and differences between parole and probation to determine the extent and duration of their conditional release.  

For example, the primary difference between parole and probation is that the former involves a period of community supervision after an inmate has served some time in jail or prison. In contrast, probation is often an alternative to a prison sentence.

Here are some laws that govern probation and parole:

  • Any individual on probation or parole may undergo a probation officer’s supervision if the state allows the conditions of release.
  • Probation or parole violators risk having their early release status revoked.

Probation and parole allow convicted people to spend much of their time outside the correctional setting. 

Individuals on probation can complete the remainder of their sentence in a local area under the supervision of a court-appointed probation officer. Meanwhile, parolees can serve the rest of their sentence outside prison walls under the close watch of a court-appointed parole officer

Lastly, there may be little need for legal intervention if people consistently obey and comply with an individual’s probation or parole terms and conditions.


Probation is a court-issued criminal sentence that, under certain constraints, can result in the full release of a convicted individual into the community instead of incarceration.

The types of probation include the following:

  • Unsupervised probation
  • Intensive probation
  • Supervised probation
  • Courtesy supervision
  • Interstate compact

Probation requirements may change depending on the type of probation.

Probation usually requires probationers to report to the probation officer assigned to their case routinely. These public representatives supervise probationers’ involvement in court-ordered rehabilitation programs, including community service.

In addition, probation supervision ensures individuals convicted of specific felonies and misdemeanors, especially those with substance abuse diagnoses, meet probation requirements such as taking drug and alcohol tests.

Eligibility terms for probation differ depending on the region or state. 

As an example of a statute specifying eligibility terms, the Tennessee Code has these provisions regarding probation:

  • A defendant is eligible for probation if their court-ordered term is 10 years or less. 
  • The court can impose probation as part of its sentencing determination after the trial. Defendants cannot apply for probation. 
  • Additionally, the court offers probation as a sentencing alternative for eligible defendants by default. 
  • The court can also sentence the offender to a specific sentence if the institution finds that probation duration is sufficient. However, courts can suspend sentence execution and place the defendant on probation with or without supervision. 

The court’s rulings may apply immediately or after some period of confinement, including the minimum sentence permissible under the state’s guidelines.

While there are many similarities between probation and parole, the distinctions are notable enough to warrant different restriction policies. 

Maintaining probation rules can be tough, and remaining on probation can prove even more challenging. For example, a single infraction could lead to a re-sentence. 

When people frequently communicate with probation officers, they may face additional constraints on movement — where they live and what they can do for a living. In contrast, parole has relatively fewer conditions.

What Are Three Types of Parole in the United States?

The three types of parole are:

  • Mandatory: This parole program happens when offenders have served their original term, minus their good behavior credit. Afterward, the facility releases individuals to complete their sentences in the community with supervision.
  • Discretionary: This kind of parole involves a parole board’s decision to release certain inmates before the end of their terms, with the rest of their sentences completed under community supervision.
  • Unconditional:  Under this parole type, offenders may obtain release orders after serving their entire prison sentence.

These people could not receive early release orders from a parole board in areas that retain discretionary parole. In addition, they are not eligible to earn good time credit, which could qualify them for early release.

Eligibility for Parole

The type of sentence an offender receives affects their parole eligibility. 

The parole eligibility date is the earliest a person can receive parole. The Parole Commission awards paroles and sets release dates around the eligibility date.

Moreover, many states grant parole to individuals who have served part of their sentence and been convicted of specific criminal offenses.

However, offenders convicted of arson, first-degree murder, rape, kidnapping, or drug trafficking rarely qualify for parole. 

In addition, the parole board examines additional conditions, including age, psychological health, marital status, and criminal records.

The Parole Commission’s mechanism for assessing parole eligibility starts at sentencing. This eligibility generally occurs once the offender serves one-third of their term unless the court mandates a minimum incarceration time or an indeterminate sentence.

For example, an offender serving a term or life sentence of 30 years can qualify for parole after completing 1/3 of that time or 10 years (30 years x 1/3 = 10 years).

Parole Hearings

A parole hearing is a process for determining whether the court should release a convicted individual from prison to complete their sentence under parole monitoring in the community. 

A hearing examiner from the U.S. Parole Commission presides over the session during parole hearings. 

Then, a U.S. Parole Commission officer determines if the inmate qualifies for parole release based on the hearing examiner’s reports and records.

Before a parole decision hearing, the examiner assesses the case file and recommends the hearing’s verdict. In most cases, the offender gets notified of the ruling.

When there isn’t a recommendation, the examiner can send the case to the Parole Commission for further consideration. Recommendations provided at the meeting are tentative. Another examiner evaluates the case before making a final judgment.

It typically takes about 21 days before the offender gets a letter advising them of the official parole decision.

Parole Supervision

The parolee is usually under the watchful eye of the prison agency via required check-ins with a parole officer

Additionally, state parole services (often a division of the department of corrections) provide services customized to the parolee’s needs, including lodging in a halfway house or intensive mental health treatment.

These supervision strategies generally involve the prison agency:

  • Coordinating the assets of supervision with the risks
  • Focusing on and explaining rules and conditions that parolees can observe realistically and parole officers can impose practically
  • Prioritizing surveillance and treatment
  • Supervising community-based parolees
  • Developing swift, effective, and consistent approaches to violations
  • Introducing different incentives to generate and recognize successes

However, community supervision for parolees differs from state to state.

For instance, a Texas-based offender placed on community supervision must maintain compliance with and adhere to their parole’s terms and conditions (T&Cs).

An inmate who violates or neglects these T&Cs may end up having their parole revoked, getting taken into custody, and returning to prison.

Parolees should seek the services of a parole defense lawyer to help them work through their community supervision period. This lawyer can explain the limitations and conditions of their parole.

A criminal defense attorney who maintains a close client relationship with the parolee will likely provide free consultation or counsel to the parolee’s loved ones regarding the best steps to ensure release on parole.

Parole Conditions

An individual currently out on parole enjoys relative freedom in return for following these general rules:

  • Avoid criminal activity and contact with victims.
  • Maintain a stable home and a job.
  • Stay within a defined geographical area or do not leave without approval from the parole officer.
  • Abstain from alcohol and drugs.
  • Participate in alcohol or drug treatment.

The parole officer charged with monitoring the parolee can visit the parolee’s residence to ensure the parolee complies with parole conditions.

Listed below are some specific court-ordered rules parolees might have to follow:

  • Do not go to clubs or bars.
  • When applicable, submit to blood or urinalysis tests.
  • Possession of firearms or other potentially deadly weapons is not allowed.
  • Report in person at probation or parole offices.
  • Avoid contact with individuals with criminal histories.
  • Do not relocate or switch careers without permission.
  • Do not leave the specified city or state without authorization.
  • Pay supervision fees.
  • Follow all relevant state and local legislation.

The parole board can discharge the parolee upon finding a reasonable belief that the parolee will become a productive and upright citizen and that the release will benefit society’s welfare and interests.

The parolee’s release order or notice of action typically shows the conditions for release.

Suppose the inmate is refused parole and released at the completion date minus the sum of good-time days. In that case, the mandatory release certificate will detail the conditions of supervision.

Fourth Amendment Rights

The Fourth Amendment safeguards parolees and probationers against unwarranted search and seizure, which generally requires court authorization based on probable cause.

In addition, in the U.S., a state’s department of corrections is the primary agency in charge of parole, probation, and other community corrections services.

Some consider eliminating parole a logical consequence for adopting uniform sentencing based on offense severity. Others see this change as the transfer of discretionary decision-making to judges and prosecutors, leading to a loss of checks and balances in decision-making.

Many view the narrowing of discretionary decision-making due to parole abolishment as counterproductive compared to having a separate discretionary body (the parole board) involved with determining sentence lengths for offenders.

Parole Violation

 A violation happens when the person on parole breaks or disregards one or more parole conditions.

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

The period an individual serves in prison before becoming eligible for parole may differ depending on the local jurisdiction’s laws. The U.S. Parole Commission grants inmates parole and issues them the conditions of release. The inmate must abide by these rules to remain out of prison.

The conditions of release generally require the parolee (the individual on parole) to obey laws and maintain offense-specific requirements, like not drinking excessively.

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

Failure to comply with parole requirements can result in a parole violation. The Parole Commission decides whether or not the offender returns to jail for violating parole.

Types of Violations

As previously mentioned, a parolee who commits a crime breaches their release orders, leading to parole forfeiture. 

Parole authorities can impose harsher conditions for minor or procedural violations like unlawful alcohol use instead of proceeding with revocation (return to prison).

Instead of sending a parolee back to jail or prison due to substance abuse that contravenes their parole, the parole officer may refer the individual to a counseling session and require documentation of attendance.

Should the parolee fail to meet that requirement, or if the parole violation is grave, the authorities will usually pursue the revocation process.

The court can impose different punishments if the parolee is convicted of a parole violation, depending on the conditions of parole the parolee disobeyed. These penalties can include the following:

  • Fines: The parole violator must pay a fine for the violation.
  • Revocation: The decision-maker can revoke the person’s parole, causing them to return to jail or prison for the remainder of their original sentence.
  • Arrest warrant: The court can issue a summons for the parolee’s arrest.
  • Increased parole term: The court may prolong the parolee’s time on parole. However, the court cannot extend the parole term past the original sentence.
  • Criminal charges: The parolee committing a new offense while on parole will likely break parole and be prosecuted for that additional crime.

Parole Revocation or Violation Hearing

In a formal parole violation hearing, the decision-maker, usually a judge or a parole board member, will evaluate the violation’s nature and consequences and decide whether to return the parolee to the corrections facility.

The parolee is first informed of the alleged violation. Then, a preliminary hearing establishes whether there is probable cause to suspect there was a violation. Afterward, a final hearing occurs before the parole board. In some cases, both proceedings take place at the same time.

The parolee returned to prison may spend weeks, months, years, or the rest of the original sentence behind bars, depending on the jurisdiction’s policies. The prisoner may also be eligible for a parole hearing that follows a specific period.

Parole ends when the parole period expires, a jurisdiction revokes the conditional release, or the parolee emigrates or acquires immigration status. 

Moreover, although parole is temporary, a recipient may have to stay in the U.S. longer than the time allowed for parole. Additionally, an individual can seek a re-parole from within the U.S. in such cases.

Getting Help

All states must follow the due process requirements the U.S. Supreme Court mandated for parole revocation procedures. A person on parole can call witnesses to testify at a contested hearing.

The parolee may appear in court on an alleged parole violation. There must be “good cause” to believe that the individual violated their parole terms leading up to suspension or revocation.

However, state laws on parole differ. 

Suppose you have any issues or want to understand how the law relates to your criminal case. In that case, consider consulting a lawyer. A skilled lawyer can explain the rules and regulations in greater detail, including whether or not parole decisions are final. 

Searching for online resources can also provide helpful knowledge. Information is available on various nonprofit and government websites.

Offenders can also contact the Parole Commission by seeking assistance from their case managers or contacting the commission by mail using this address:

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


  1. Probation and Parole in the United States, 2021
  2. United States Parole Commission
  3. What is a Parole Officer?
  4. Parole
  5. Dialogue – Issue 37: Parole in the United States: People & Policies in Transition
  6. Probation
  7. What are the different types of probation?
  8. 2010 Tennessee Code: Title 40 – Criminal Procedure
  9. Does Parole Supervision Work?
  10. Frequently Asked Questions
  11. Probation and Parole Requirements
  12. Searches of Prisoners, Parolees and Probationers
  13. Abolishing Parole – An Idea Whose Time Has Passed

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