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Parole is the release of a person from prison prior to the end of his sentence. It involves some restrictions, usually involving a level of supervision and minimum standards of conduct as well as limited freedom of movement. Violation of parole generally constitutes grounds for reincarceration. Parole is granted based on a prisoner's good behavior while incarcerated, plus additional considerations. Parole is alternately related to medical issues, immigration, and war.

The purpose of parole is to increase chances of rehabilitation while still maintaining public safety, reflecting the philosophy of reform rather than retribution in the penal system. However, the topic of parole is controversial, as parolees often fail to comply with the terms of their release, sometimes committing new and violent crimes while paroled. In order to protect society, many jurisdictions deny the opportunity for parole to those convicted of violent crimes except under conditions of medical parole, such as in cases of terminal illness. Thus, the granting of parole must weigh the potential risk to society of releasing a convicted criminal after a shorter time in prison with the hope that the convict has reformed and is ready to begin the transition to a functioning, even valuable, member of society.


The word parole can have different meanings depending on the jurisdiction. All of the meanings derive from the French parole, meaning "(spoken) word or honor." The term became associated with the release of prisoners based on them giving their word of honor to abide by certain restrictions.[1]

In criminal justice systems, parole is the supervised release of a prisoner before the completion of his or her sentence. This differs from amnesty or commutation of sentence in that parolees are still considered to be serving their sentences, and may be returned to prison if they violate the conditions of their parole. In nearly all cases, conditions of parole include obeying the law, obtaining some form of employment, and maintaining some contact with a parole officer.

The term also has specific meanings in the military and immigration, as well as the special condition of medical parole.

In practice

In the United States, courts may specify at sentencing how much time must be served before a prisoner is eligible for parole. This is often done by specifying an indeterminate sentence of, say, "15 to 25 years," or "15 years to life." The latter type is known as an "indeterminate life sentence;" in contrast, a sentence of "life without the possibility of parole" is known as a "determinate life sentence."

In most states, the decision as to whether an inmate is paroled is vested in a paroling authority such as a parole board. Mere good conduct while incarcerated in and of itself does not necessarily guarantee that an inmate will be paroled. Other factors may enter into the decision to grant or deny parole, most commonly the establishment of a permanent residence and immediate, gainful employment or some other clearly visible means of self-support upon release (such as Social Security if the prisoner is old enough to qualify). Many states permit sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (such as for murder and espionage), and any prisoner not sentenced to either this or the death penalty eventually has the right to petition for release (one state—Alaska—maintains neither the death penalty nor life imprisonment without parole as sentencing options). At the same time, other nations, such as Germany and Mexico, have abolished life without the possibility of parole on the grounds that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Before being granted the privilege of parole, the inmate must first agree to abide by the conditions set by the paroling authority. These conditions usually require the parolee to meet regularly with his or her parole officer or community corrections agent, who assesses the behavior and adjustment of the parolee and determines whether the parolee is violating any of his or her terms of release (typically these include being at home during certain hours, maintaining steady employment, not absconding, refraining from illicit drug use and sometimes, abstaining from alcohol). In some cases, a parolee may be discharged from parole before the time called for in the original sentence if it is determined that the parole restrictions are no longer necessary for the protection of society (this most frequently occurs when elderly parolees are involved).

Parole is a controversial political topic in the United States. Some states have abolished parole entirely, and others have abolished parole for certain violent offenders. The accused perpetrators of the infamous July 2007 Cheshire, Connecticut, home invasion were convicted burglars paroled from Connecticut prisons.[2] The New York Daily News called on parole to be abolished in the wake of this massacre.[3]

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) stated, in 2005, that about 45 percent of parolees completed their sentences successfully, while 38 percent were returned to prison, and 11 percent absconded. These statistics, the DOJ says, are relatively unchanged since 1995; even so, some states (including New York) have abolished parole altogether for violent felons, and the federal government abolished it in 1984 for all offenders convicted of a federal crime, whether violent or not. Despite the decline in jurisdictions with a functioning parole system, the average annual growth of parolees was an increase of about 1.5 percent per year between 1995 and 2002.[4]

A variant of parole is known as "time off for good behavior." Unlike the traditional form of parole—which may be granted or denied at the discretion of a parole board—time off for good behavior is automatic absent a certain number (or gravity) of infractions committed by a convict while incarcerated (in most jurisdictions the released inmate is placed under the supervision of a parole officer for a certain amount of time after being so released). In some cases "good time" can reduce the maximum sentence by as much as one-third. It is usually not made available to inmates serving life sentences, as there is no release date that can be moved up.

Immigration law

In U.S. immigration law, the term "parole" has three different meanings.

A person who does not meet the technical requirements for a visa may be allowed to enter the U.S. for humanitarian purposes. Persons who are allowed to enter the U.S. in this manner are known as "parolees."

Another use related to immigration is "advance parole," in which a person who already legally resides in the U.S. needs to leave temporarily and return without a visa. This typically occurs when a person's application for a green card (permanent residency) is in process and the person must leave the U.S. for emergency or business reasons.

The term is also used to denote scenarios in which the federal government orders the release of an alien inmate incarcerated in a state prison before that inmate's sentence has been completed, with the stipulation that the inmate be immediately deported, and never permitted to return to the United States. The most celebrated example of this form of parole was that of Lucky Luciano, who was being "rewarded" for cooperating with the war effort during World War II. In most cases where such parole is resorted to, however, the federal government has deemed that the need for the immediate deportation of the inmate outweighs the state's interest in meting out punishment for the crime the inmate committed.

Prisoners of war

Parole in the laws of war has a specific meaning. In military law, a prisoner of war may be released from confinement, or paroled upon promising certain conditions, such as remaining in a specified place or not attempting to escape, or not taking up arms again in the current hostilities.

The captors would return a captured soldier to his homeland on the agreement that the soldier would never again take up arms against the nation or organization that captured him. A paroled soldier who had indeed taken up arms again and was recaptured on the battlefield was subject to instant death for violating such agreement. The origin of the war concept of parole was unknown, although the first known cases occurred in the wars between Carthage and Rome. The Code of Conduct for the U.S. military prohibits American servicemen from accepting parole if they are taken prisoner by the enemy. ("If captured…I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.") U.S. military personnel who accept parole from enemy captors are subject to courts-martial upon their return to the United States.

Medical parole

Medical parole is a form of parole which involves the release of a prisoner on the grounds that he or she is too ill to continue serving his or her prison sentence. Today, virtually all states have some procedure for releasing terminally ill or permanently incapacitated prisoners.

Medical parole has been used by the Chinese government to release a prisoner without losing face and admitting that the original sentence was unjust. There have been cases where a prisoner has been released on medical parole immediately after conviction. This occurs especially in cases where medical parole effectively exiles a political dissident. The Chinese legal code has no explicit provision for exile, but often a dissident is released on the grounds that they need to be treated for a medical condition in another country, and with the understanding that they will be reincarcerated if they return to China. Dissidents who have been released on medical parole include Wang Dan, Wei Jingsheng, Gao Zhan, and Fang Lizhi. Exiling a dissident in most cases destroys them politically, as they are no longer seen as a martyr within China.[5]


  1. Etymology Online, Parole. Retrieved August 20, 2007.
  2. Courant, Parole An Issue After Cheshire Slayings. Retrieved November 20, 2007.
  3. New York Daily News, Save lives—abolish parole. Retrieved November 20, 2007.
  4. U.S. Department of Justice, Probation and Parole Statistics. Retrieved August 20, 2007.
  5. Reuters, Shanghai Activist Dies Hours After Medical Parole. Retrieved August 20, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Abadinsky, Howard. Probation and Parole: Theory and Practice. Prentice Hall, 2005. ISBN 0131188941
  • Champion, Dean. Probation, Parole and Community Corrections. Prentice Hall, 2007. ISBN 0136130585
  • Petersilia, Joan. When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry. Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 019516086X
  • Pollard, Edward. Observations in the North: Eight Months in Prison and on Parole. Cornell University Library, 1865. ISBN 1429718110


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