Parole is the conditional release of an inmate prior to the completion of his prison sentence, after he agrees to follow very specific rules and regulations. While an individual released on parole is considered to have served his sentence, he risks being returned to prison to finish the prison term if he fails to follow the specific conditions set, or to report regularly to his parole officer. To explore this concept, consider the following parole definition.

Definition of Parole


  1. The conditional release of a prisoner from prison, prior to fulfillment of the maximum sentence.


  1. The act of placing or releasing on parole.


1610-20            Middle French (short for parole d’honneur: word of honor)

History of Parole

The concept of parole dates back to the 1800s when Alexander Maconochie, overseer of the British penal colonies, introduced the idea as a method of preparing inmates to eventually return to live in society. Maconochie’s parole system involved a grading system in which prisoners earned promotions through labor, studies, and good behavior. The third and final grade gave liberties outside the prison for short periods of time while obeying specific rules. A prisoner so paroled who violated any of the rules was returned to prison to start all over again, at the bottom of the three-grade system.

History of parole in the United States features Zebulon Brockway, superintendent of the Elmira Reformatory in New York. In an attempt to manage rising numbers of inmates, and to rehabilitate inmates for their eventual release, Brockway developed a two-stage system involving unspecified prison sentences and parole releases.

Difference Between Probation and Parole

Probation and parole are alternatives to incarceration; both used to supervise criminals closely as they live in society. There are, however, important differences between the two. Probation is supervised living ordered in place of jail or prison time. When an individual is given probation, it is an opportunity for him to show the court that he wants to rehabilitate instead of being sentenced to prison. While on probation, the individual must carefully follow the judge’s instructions, as well as those of his probation officer, or he risks having his probation revoked, and being incarcerated for the full term imposed by the judge. Probation is most often used for misdemeanor or less serious felony convictions, and is often the result of a plea bargain.

Parole, on the other hand, is only assigned after the individual has served a significant portion of a prison sentence handed down by the court. Parole releases help prisons keep prison populations down, and are intended to ensure the parolees are rehabilitating before being fully released without supervision into the public. An individual released on parole, referred to as a “parolee,” must follow very strict rules that are specified in writing prior to release. He must report on a regular schedule to his assigned parole officer, and must not be involved in any further illegal activities.

Unlike probation, which is assigned by a judge following a conviction or plea bargain, parole may only be granted by a parole board, which holds regular hearings. Each state has its own statutes regarding when and if parole may be granted, depending on the criminal charge, circumstances surrounding the crime, and the inmate’s criminal history.

How the Parole System Works

The parole system allows individuals convicted of felonies to be released early from prison, under specific conditions. While many people sentenced to prison wonder how the parole system works, the truth is, the conditions vary greatly by jurisdiction (state), and according to the specific crime for which the inmate was convicted.

The first step in the parole system is determining the inmate’s eligibility. Conditions for eligibility are set by each jurisdiction’s specific laws, and some crimes are not eligible for parole under any conditions. Generally speaking, an inmate becomes eligible for parole only after spending a certain specified portion of his prison sentence, as imposed by the court.

In some states, such as California, many inmates become eligible for parole automatically after serving the requisite amount of time behind bars, as long as they have not gotten into any trouble, and have cooperated during their incarceration. In most states, however, parole is not automatic, and each prisoner who desires to be released early must apply to the parole board, presenting his case. The parole board then considers the nature of the inmate’s crime, his previous criminal record, and his behavior during incarceration, as well as the statutory guidelines on parole, before making a determination.

In most states, victims of the inmate’s crimes, or the victim’s family members, may appear at the inmate’s parole hearing to voice their opinions as to whether he should be released on parole. The inmate may testify himself, as a large part of the parole board’s decision is based on whether or not the inmate feels remorse for the crimes he committed.

When the parole board approves parole, the inmate is often ordered to live in a halfway house for a period of time, where he remains under a higher level of supervision than he would be living on his own. During this time, he may visit with friends and family, assuming they are not convicted criminals, look for a job, attend church or other meetings, and move freely in the community, though there may be a strict curfew. Halfway house supervision is not ordered in every parole release, but every parolee must be under the close supervision of a parole officer.

Whatever portion of the parolee’s prison sentence has not been served must be completed on parole, and parole may actually extend beyond the point the inmate would have been released from prison. For example, an inmate released with another 18 months left on his prison sentence may be ordered to remain on parole 3 years. While the term of supervision is ultimately longer, most inmates feel having the freedom to live their lives is preferable to remaining in prison.

In the event parole is denied to an inmate, he must wait a year or two, as stipulated by state law, to apply to the parole board again.

What is a Parole Board

A parole board is a panel of people responsible for determining whether or not a prison inmate should be released after serving a minimum portion of his sentence. Some jurisdictions, though not all, have written qualifications for members of a parole board, which may be composed of judges, criminologists, psychiatrists, and other qualified individuals. In some jurisdictions, members of the general community, who are shown to be of good moral character, may serve on the parole board.

While there is no parole for individuals serving sentences in federal prison, every state has its own parole board. How much power each state’s parole board holds varies. While the parole boards of some states are independent agencies, others are branches of the state’s department of corrections.

Conditions of Parole

When an inmate is released on parole, he may be ordered to comply with any number of specific conditions, as long as they are deemed reasonable, and work toward his rehabilitation. Conditions of parole may be tailored to fit the exact needs of the parolee, based on the circumstances, though certain conditions of parole are imposed on all parolees.

Common Conditions of Parole

  • Attend regular meetings with an assigned parole officer
  • Refrain from committing any crimes, regardless of how minor
  • Refrain from associating with criminals or gang members
  • Refrain from using drugs or alcohol
  • Submit to regular drug tests, and be tested whenever required by the parole officer
  • Adhere to travel restrictions
  • Keep parole officer informed of current address, phone number, place of employment, and other relevant information
  • Obtain psychiatric care, or attend counseling or rehab programs, if ordered
  • Agree to warrantless searches at any time

What is a Parole Violation

When a parolee fails to strictly follow the conditions of his parole, he has committed a parole violation. When this occurs, the parolee may be brought before the parole board, which then determines the consequences of his actions. The board may revoke the individual’s parole, and order him back to prison, or it may allow him to remain on parole.

When facing the parole board for a parole violation, the parolee has no right to a jury trial. Due process for a parole violator is satisfied by a hearing by the parole board. According to the United States Supreme Court, in order for due process to be satisfied, the parolee must:

  1. Receive written notice of the violations
  2. Be provided evidence against him
  3. Be allowed to provide witnesses or documentary evidence
  4. Be given the opportunity to confront and cross-examine witnesses

Common Parole Violations

The ways parolees may violate the conditions of their parole are any and storied. Because one of the first conditions of any parole is to obey all laws, even minor violations of the law may result in a parole violation. There are many other standard conditions of parole that are commonly disregarded, and result in parole violations. These include:

  • Not reporting to a parole officer as scheduled
  • Not reporting changes of address, or employment changes
  • Not appearing in court at a scheduled date and time
  • Leaving the county or state when ordered otherwise
  • Failing to pay fines or restitution
  • Using, selling, or possessing drugs (or alcohol)
  • Committing another crime
  • Being arrested for any reason, whether directly involved with a crime or not
  • Failing to complete court-ordered community service, counseling, or drug treatment programs

For example:

Paul is released on parole after serving only 6 years of his 11-year sentence for armed robbery. Three months after his release, Paul misses his report to his parole officer. He is then stopped for a traffic violation and, because he and his possessions can be searched without a warrant while on parole, the officer finds drugs in Paul’s vehicle. Paul is taken into custody and returned to the prison, where he will have a hearing before the parole board. While the board may revoke his parole and require him to remain in prison, Paul may also face new charges for the drug possession.

Punishments for Parole Violation

In many cases, a parole officer may give the parolee a warning, allowing him to remain on parole. In certain circumstances, however, the parole officer is required to take the individual into custody, and return him to the parole board for determination of punishment for violation of parole. The most severe punishment for parole violation is to return the individual to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence behind bars. Because many acts that result in parole being violated are actually new crimes, it is common for parolees to face new criminal charges, for which he may be tried and convicted.

What is a Parole Officer

Once an inmate has been released on parole, he must meet with, and follow the directions of, an assigned parole officer. The job of the parole officer is to assist the newly released offender adjust to society, and to protect society by ensuring the parolee is obeying the law. This includes helping the parolee obtain housing and employment, and overseeing his attendance at substance abuse or other programs if needed. In order to become a parole officer, an individual must at least a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, corrections, psychology, social work, or other related area. Specific requirements vary by jurisdiction. Because parole officers work closely with criminals, the job can be dangerous, but most parole officers find it very rewarding.

Teen Gang Member Faces Parole Board

In 2008, 7-year old Mara Del Carmen Menchaca, who was playing in her front yard, was accidentally gunned down when a vehicle loaded with gang members sprayed shots intended for a rival gang member at the house. Police later tracked down the suspects, and each faced criminal charges related to the murder of that little girl. One of the car’s occupants, 16-year old Mae Goodman Johnson, pled guilty to the second degree felony crime of manslaughter, and was sentenced to spend 1 to 15 years in the Utah State Prison.

Six years later, Johnson sat before a parole board, asking to be released on parole. While none of the victim’s family members attended the hearing, several of Johnson’s family members attended to support her. When questioned by the board, Johnson said she pled guilty because her attorney told her to, but that she had never handled the gun used in the crime.

Johnson tearfully told the board that she wanted to express her sorrow to the girl’s family, and told her own family that she felt like she let them down. Following the tearful hearing, the parole board would consider many aspects of Johnson’s crime, conviction, behavior during her incarceration, and other information before making their decision. It is possible Johnson could be released from prison after serving only 7 years of her possibly 15-year sentence. If parole is denied, however, she may not be released until she has served her entire sentence.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Due Process – The fundamental, constitutional right to fair legal proceedings in which all parties will be given notice of the proceedings, and have an opportunity to be heard.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Plea Bargain – An agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant in which the defendant pleads guilty to a reduced charge, often for a reduced sentence.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.