The most serious punishment for most crimes involves sentencing the defendant to prison, the "state penitentiary." Following serving his minimum term, a portion of his sentence that varies from state to state, a defendant who is in prison will usually qualify for parole. Many defendants who are incarcerated can earn "good behavior" or "good time" credits, that allow them to qualify for an earlier release date by behaving. The idea is that model prisoners are less likely to re-offend, and that prisoners will behave better if they have an incentive not to cause trouble. Some prisoners will not be eligible for "good time," due to the nature of their offenses. Often "habitual offenders", offenders who have a significant criminal history, are not eligible for good time credits. Some jurisdictions have abolished good time for all prisoners.
Parole is a privilege, not a right, and many prisoners are refused parole when they first apply. Parole boards expect to hear a prisoner admit responsibility for his crimes. They also expect that the prisoner will take advantage of the programs made available in prison, such as, if appropriate, GED programs, Alcoholics Anonymous, and vocational training. They will also look at the prisoner's conduct during incarceration, and whether the prisoner has been cited for misconduct. (Typically, prisoners will be "ticketed" for their violations of prison rules, with offenses classified as "major" or "minor." A prisoner who was involved in a fight would likely be ticketed for a major offense, while a prisoner who yelled at a guard might be ticketed for a minor offense, depending on the circumstances. These tickets can be challenged through administrative hearings, but are usually upheld as valid.) They may also look at the prisoner's age, the amount of time he has served, the remaining time in his sentence, and his mental health. The exact criteria for parole vary from state to state.
Perhaps the most important assessment that the parole board attempts to assess is the likelihood that the prisoner will re-offend. Parole boards have no interest in releasing people into society who will commit more crimes, particularly given that the media will sometimes hold the parole board as responsible as the criminal in such cases. Increasingly, potentially dangerous offenders, such as sex offenders, are finding that they are never granted parole, even in states where they are eligible.
Some prisoners are not eligible for parole, either because of state policy, or because of the crime they committed. Some crimes carry a flat term of years, which must be completed without the possibility of parole. A defendant who is sentenced to life in prison will either be sentenced to "parolable life," or to "non-parolable life." If a person serving a life term is eligible for parole, he typically must serve fifteen or twenty years of his sentence before he can request parole. If a person is serving non-parolable life, he never becomes eligible for parole.
The length of the parole will depend upon the nature of the crime committed, the length of the defendant's sentence, and how well the defendant performs while on parole. A defendant who repeatedly gets into trouble or breaks the conditions of his parole may find that he is returned to prison. (Many states have jail-like facilities for "technical rule violators," where they can send parolees who violate the terms of their paroles, but not to the level that the parole board wishes to return them to prison.) In most states, after a long enough period of good conduct, it is possible for a defendant to be discharged from parole.
Release into the community may occur in stages. First, as the criminal nears his release date, he may be moved into less secure prison facilities. If he abuses the privileges at the less secure prison, he will be returned to a more secure facility. Prisoners in less secure facilities are sometimes allowed to work outside of the prison, either through a state program or sometimes through a private employer. If the prisoner continues to behave well, he may eventually qualify for placement in a half-way house, a residential facility where he can have a job, and may even qualify for day or weekend passes where he is free to do what he wants. If a prisoner successfully completes a term in a half-way house, he is usually paroled into the community.
A prisoner on parole is not without restriction. Sometimes, the prisoner will spend time on a "tether," an electronic monitoring device that allows his parole officer to monitor his movements, and be restricted from doing much other than going to work. A parolee will typically not be allowed to move without permission from his parole officer. Sometimes, it will be a parole violation to get fired from a job. Parolees are typically restricted from associating with known criminals. If the parolee has drug or alcohol problems, he may be subjected to periodic testing for use. If the parolee has mental health problems, he may be ordered to participate in counseling or to obtain psychiatric treatment. (Increasingly, prisoners with mental health problems are refused parole, and simply serve out their time in prison.) Parolees may be surprised to learn how much control their parole officers exercise over their lives, and, depending upon the state, the extent of the parole officer's powers to search the parolee or his residence upon suspicion that the parolee has engaged in illegal activities. Parolees often cannot move or change jobs without permission.
Parolees are typically not permitted to leave the state without permission from their parole officers. Permission may be granted for short trips out of state, for example to attend funerals, or for longer trips, such as to assist a sick relative. However, some parolees are surprised to learn that, due to the nature of their offenses or a perceived risk of flight, their parole officers refuse to allow them to leave the state. If a parolee wishes to move to another state, and is granted permission to do so, his parole will typically continue, and will typically be transferred to the Department of Corrections in his new home state.
If a parolee is accused of violating his parole, he is typically given the opportunity to challenge the accusation at an administrative hearing before the parole board. There will typically be two hearings, the first to determine if the parolee should be held in custody pending the full hearing, and the second to determine if the parolee violated the terms of his parole. Parolees who fail to report for meetings with their probation officer, who are caught with illegal drugs or concealed weapons, who associate with known criminals, or who are arrested on new criminal charges, are particularly likely to be returned to prison. It should be noted that being arrested can be enough to violate a person's parole, even if no charges result from that arrest.