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Criminal Law FAQs

Understanding Parole

After you have been arrested, if you are found guilty of a crime, you may have to serve time in prison or another detention facility. Your sentence may be cut short if you are released on parole, or you may be placed on parole after serving your full sentence. But what is parole? When might it be granted? The following primer answers those questions, and many more.

What is parole?

Parole is a conditional release from prison. In some cases, a prisoner may be released on parole only after they have served their full sentence. In other situations, a prisoner may receive an early release on parole. Parole allows a prisoner, or parolee, to leave prison and re-enter the community, subject to certain limitations and conditions. Parolees who break any of the terms of parole can be sent back to prison for the remainder of their sentence and face additional punishment.

Who is responsible for overseeing prisoners on parole?

The U.S. Parole Commission has jurisdiction over federal prisoners who are released on parole. For criminals serving time in state detention facilities, that particular state parole board has jurisdiction.

How does parole differ from probation?

Parole and probation are two separate things. Parole occurs when a prisoner is released from prison after having served either a portion or all of his or her sentence. Probation is an alternative to incarceration. A criminal who receives probation as a sentence will be able to remain a member of his or her community, without serving time in jail or prison, so long as he or she complies with the conditions set by the court. The conditions can include counseling or treatment, participating in community education or performing community service. If any conditions are not met, probation can be revoked, and the remainder of the sentence is served in jail or prison.

Is parole always an option?

No. In cases of particularly serious crimes, a prisoner may not be eligible for parole. The law of the state in which sentencing occurs will dictate whether a prisoner may obtain parole for a certain crime. For example, some states do not allow for repeat offenders or first-degree murderers, among others, to receive parole. If a prisoner receives a death sentence, he or she is not eligible for parole.

How do I get parole?

The specific steps that must be followed in order to obtain parole will vary from state to state. However, the process usually starts with a request or application for parole. In some states, prisoners are required to make the request themselves. In other states, a state parole board may investigate the possibility of parole after a set percentage of the sentence has been served. Once the request or application is made, a hearing will be held. Each state has detailed laws regarding how these hearings are to be conducted and what factors may be considered. Following the hearing, the parole board makes a decision as to whether the prisoner should be released on parole.

What factors are considered in determining whether parole will be granted?

Any number of factors will be considered by the parole board in determining whether a prisoner should be released on parole. These factors may include the prisoner's age, mental status, education and training, employment opportunities, and remorse for having committed the offense. The parole board will also consider the prisoner's behavior and attitude while in prison, participation in prison-education and prison-therapy programs, and the severity of the crime that was committed.

Can a prisoner have more than one parole hearing?

Yes. If a prisoner requests or is given a parole hearing but is denied parole, he or she may try again, in the future, to obtain parole by going through the same process.

Does a prisoner have to accept parole when it is granted?

No. Parole will have many different conditions attached to it, usually put into place by the parole board and approved by the trial court that initially imposed the sentence. A prisoner must be informed of the conditions of their release before being placed on parole. If the prisoner does not like the conditions, or has doubts about his or her ability to abide by them, he or she is free to reject the offer of parole.

How long does parole last?

In most cases, the length of parole depends upon the crime that was committed and the behavior of the criminal. Typically, parole will not last longer than five years. However, parole can last for the rest of a prisoner's life.

What type of conditions might be imposed on parole?

The conditions of parole that may be imposed are controlled by state law and also by the circumstances of the particular case. A parolee might be required to remain in a specific geographical area, or he or she might be required to obtain a job, receive treatment, or submit to counseling or periodic drug testing. Parolees are, almost without exception, prohibited from owning firearms. In all cases, a parolee will be required to meet with a parole officer. Usually, these meetings will be on a pre-determined schedule. In some cases, parolees might have to meet their parole officer once a week. In other situations, they may only have to meet with them once a month. The frequency of meetings with a parole officer depends upon the type of crime that was committed and the risk the parolee poses to the general health and safety of the community.

What happens if the conditions of parole are violated?

If the terms of parole are broken, the punishments vary. A parolee who is late to a meeting with his or her parole officer, for example, may be given a verbal warning. If a more serious violation occurs, such as where the parolee fails a drug test, he or she may be sent back to prison. If a parolee commits a new crime while on parole, he or she may be sent back to prison and may also face trial (and a new sentence) for the new crime.

How is a prisoner's parole revoked?

Just as the process of granting parole varies from state to state, the process of revoking parole is also controlled by the laws of the particular state in question. Usually, parolees are entitled to a hearing to determine whether they have the right to remain on parole or whether they should be sent back to prison. If the parolee does not like the outcome of the hearing, he or she is generally entitled to appeal the determination.

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