Parole is the conditional release of a person in prison (the “parolee”) before he or she completes the terms of a sentence. Parolees are under supervision of a state or federal parole agent who monitors the parolees’ adjustment to society until completion of the time of the originally imposed sentence. Those persons serving time on parole can be returned to prison to serve out the sentence for violating any of the conditions outlined in the parole order or if the parole agent determines that the parolee is making poor adjustments in society.
Prior to the abolishment of federal parole in 2002, the United States had two levels of parole: federal and state. Federal parole was given to persons convicted of federal crimes and state parole is given to persons convicted of state crimes. On both levels, parole required the courts to impose an indeterminate sentence. An indeterminate sentence is a sentence that includes a minimum number and a maximum number (10-14 years or 10-life) but must exclude “life without parole.” Parole varies between jurisdictions, and good conduct while incarcerated is not a guarantee that parole will be granted.
The idea for parole came from Captain Alexander Maconochie in 1787, when he was in charge of the penal colony at Norfolk Island, off the coast of Australia. This particular penal colony had a reputation as one of the most dangerous and violent establishments of its time. Maconochie believed that these prisoners could be rehabilitated not through the typical brutality then inflicted on prisoners but through rehabilitative means like education, skill building, labor, and behavior modification. Under Maconochie’s system, a prisoner received “marks” (good behavior credits) for each program successfully completed. These marks could be used for furloughs and early release from the colony. If at any time the prisoner exhibited poor behavior toward the programs, the prisoner could lose these marks and the opportunity for early release. By 1844, Maconochie had transformed this colony into one of controlled stability. Despite Maconochie’s proven success, many countries at that time, like France and England, refused to adopt this model. However, the United States incorporated it into its criminal justice system in 1865, and it became the prototype for the modern U.S. parole system.
Today, in the United States, parole is a controversial and politically charged topic. Many believe those individuals convicted of crimes should be punished by serving their entire sentences and not granted early release. Nevertheless, research findings reveal that parole does work. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that 57 percent of parolees in 2006 completed their sentences successfully, while 18 percent were returned to prison and 4 percent absconded, with the remaining 21 percent still on parole. Regardless of the statistics, parole’s existence is in jeopardy. “Tough on crime” policies and the “war on drugs” have influenced the federal government to abolish federal parole, and on the state level, many states, such as New York, no longer have parole for persons charged with violent crimes.
- Glaze, Lauren E. and Thomas P. Bonczar. 2007. “Probation and Parole in the United States 2006.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. Retrieved March 27, 2017 (https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ppus06.pdf).
- Petersilia, Joan. 2003. “When Prisoners Come Home”: Parole and Prisoner Reentry. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Petersilia, Joan and James Wilson. 1995. “Crime”: Twenty-eight Leading Experts Look at the Most Pressing Problem of Our Time. San Francisco: ICS Press.
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