Criminal Sentences to Prison and Parole

When a criminal defendant is convicted of a serious crime, or when the defendant has a prior criminal record, the defendant may be sentenced to a period of incarceration.

Incarceration normally involves a sentence to jail or to prison. A jail is a facility that is normally operated by a county or local government. A prison is a facility that is operated by a state department of corrections.

The longer the defendant's sentence, the more likely it becomes that the defendant will be sentenced to prison. Typically a sentence of up to one year of incarceration is served in a county jail, with sentences involving longer terms of incarceration resulting in the defendant's being sent to a state prison, penitentiary or a correctional facility.

What is Prison

The punishment for the most serious crimes and for many recidivist criminal offenders will involve being sentenced to prison, through the state department of corrections or federal bureau of prisons.

Classification of Prisoners

Once sentenced to prison, a convicted criminal will go through a quarantine procedure, meant to avoid introducing contagious diseases into the general population of inmates.

The prisoner will be classified based upon behavioral factors and the length of the prisoner's sentence, with that classification affecting the nature of the prison facility to which the defender is assigned and how the prisoner will be handled once in prison.

A prisoner's classification may be adjusted during the prisoner's term of incarceration, potentially being lowered based upon good behavior or the approaching eligibility for release, or increased based upon the prisoner's misconduct while incarcerated.

At the lowest end of incarceration, a prisoner may be held in a community facility or half-way house, and may be eligible for work release. At the highest end, a prisoner may be held in a supermax prison facility in which the prisoner is held largely or entirely in isolation, with limited access to visitors and recreational opportunities. Most prisoners are incarcerated in facilities that fall between those two extremes.

Misconduct While Incarcerated

During a prisoner's incarceration, it is possible for a prisoner to be charged with additional crimes based upon conduct while in prison, such as an attempt to escape, assault on another guard or inmate, and possession or sale of controlled substances.

Misconduct may also result in the prisoner being ticketed for violating a prison rule, with rule violations being classified as major or minor, and with the prisoner potentially receiving a punishment or loss of privileges within the prison as a result of the ticketed misconduct. A prisoner who gets into a fight with another inmate would likely be ticketed for major offense, while yelling at a guard is more likely to be ticketed as a minor offense

Inmates may challenge tickets and their penalties through administrative proceedings within the prison, although tickets and penalties are usually upheld as valid.

Credit for Good Behavior

In some states prisoners may earn credit for good behavior while in prison, and may potentially qualify for an earlier release date based upon that good behavior. The idea behind giving a prisoner credit for good time is that the possibility of early release will be an incentive to abide by prison rules, and that prisoners who demonstrate the self-control necessary to earn good time credits are less likely to reoffend.

  • Some states do not offer good time credit for offenders convicted of certain serious or violent offenders, or for habitual offenders who have a significant history of crime and recidivism.
  • Other jurisdictions have eliminated good time or have passed truth in sentencing laws that prohibit early release.

What is Parole

Once a convicted defendant has served the minimum prison term imposed as part of his sentence, or as has completed a percentage of his sentence as defined by the laws of the state in which he is incarcerated, the prisoner may become eligible for parole, a conditional release into the community that occurs under the supervision of a parole officer.

Some jurisdictions permit a defendant who is convicted of a more serious crime, but who the judge does not believe will benefit from immediate incarceration, to be sentenced directly to parole supervision.

A prisoner released on parole will be subject to a considerable number of restrictions and requirements, including restrictions on where he lives, potential restrictions or requirements for work and school attendance, restrictions against associating with known criminals, a prohibition on the use of illegal drugs, and a prohibition on getting into police encounters or being charged with new crimes.

Do All Inmates Receive Parole

Parole is not a right, but is instead a privilege.

  • Most prisoners are denied parole when they first apply.
  • Some prisoners are not eligible for parole, either because of state policy or because of the nature of the crime for which they were convicted.
  • Some crimes carry a flat term of years, with the state legislature requiring that the full term be completed without the possibility of parole.

A defendant who is sentenced to life in prison may be sentenced to a parolable life sentence, or may be sentenced to a term of life without parole.

  • When a prisoner serving a life sentence is eligible for parole, that prisoner must typically serve at least fifteen or twenty years of his sentence before he is eligible to request parole.
  • Absent extraordinary relief, such as executive clemency, a prisoner who is sentenced to life without parole will never be released on parole.

Parole Hearings

A prisoner who seeks parole will have the opportunity for a hearing before a parole board. Although the criteria for parole will vary by jurisdiction, in general a parole board expects:

  • Acceptance of Responsibility: A prisoner will be expected to accept responsibility for his crimes and their consequences;

  • Evidence of Rehabilitation: Any evidence that the prisoner has rehabilitated and is thus unlikely to reoffend.

  • Conduct While Incarcerated: Has the prisoner adjusted to prison life, or is the prisoner demonstrating a continuing pattern of misconduct.

  • Individual Factors: The parole board may consider factors specific to an inmate, such as the inmate's age, the amount of time served, the amount of time remaining on the inmate's sentence, the inmate's mental health, and the inmate's family and social support network outside of prison.

Evidence that is considered by a parole board will include good behavior while in prison, attendance of Alcoholics Anonymous or similar 12-step groups if appropriate and available, and, consistent with the programs available in the prison, completion of programs such as a GED program, a training or vocational program, drug rehabilitation, or other academic work. The parole board may also review a statement from the victim, whether submitted in writing or made in person.

The purpose of the parole board's review of the prisoner's application for parole is to assess the likelihood that the prisoner will reoffend. Parole boards do not want to release into society an inmate who will commit additional crimes.

Parole boards may also be concerned about negative media coverage resulting from their releasing an inmate who commits a serious crime. Even if eligible for parole some dangerous criminals, including many sex offenders, may never be released on parole due to concerns about recidivism. Parole boards may be reluctant to parole a defendant who is otherwise eligible, but who has a significant psychological or psychiatric condition.

Staged Release Into the Community

The release of a prison inmate into the community may occur in stages:

  1. As an inmate nears his release date, the inmate may be moved into a less secure prison facility. If the inmate abuses the privileges at a less secure facility, the inmate may be returned to a more secure facility.

  2. While incarcerated in a less secure facility, the inmate may be allowed to work outside of the prison, whether through a state work program or for a private employer.

  3. If the inmate continues to behave well, the inmate may qualify for placement in a half-way house, a residential facility where the inmate can hold a job, and may potentially qualify for day or weekend passes during which the inmate is allowed freedom within the community.

  4. If an inmate successfully completes a term in a half-way house, he may be paroled into the community.

The stages of release will vary depending upon the jurisdiction, the inmate's conviction offense, and the inmate's circumstances.

How Long Does Parole Last

The length of a term of parole will depend upon a range of factors, including the nature of the crime committed, the length of the defendant's sentence, how well the defendant complies with the terms of parole, and how well the defendant adjusts to life outside of prison.

A parolee who repeatedly gets into trouble or breaks the conditions of his parole may find that his parole is extended, that additional restrictions are imposed, or that he is returned to prison.

A parolee will normally be subject to a maximum term of parole that is defined by law, following which the parolee must be discharged from parole. Following a long enough period of good conduct, it is possible for a defendant to be discharged from parole prior to having served the maximum period of parole.

What Happens After An Inmate is Paroled

The release of an inmate on parole is accompanied by restrictions. Typical provisions on parole include the requirement that the parolee obtain permission before moving to a new home, that the parolee not associate with known criminals, that the parolee abstain from the use of illegal drugs, that the parolee maintain employment or school attendance, and that the parolee not be involved in any criminal activity.

Depending upon state policy, the criminal charge, and the offender, additional terms of parole may include:

  • Curfews: The parolee may be required to be at home except when engaged in authorized activity, such as employment or school attendance, or when traveling to and from that authorized activity;

  • Use of a Tether: A parolee may be required to wear a tether that allows the parolee's location to be electronically monitored or tracked.

  • Drug and Alcohol Testing: Parolees who have a history of alcoholism or substance abuse may be required to submit to random, periodic drug tests.

  • Mental Health Treatment: Parolees who have a history of psychological disorders or mental illness may be required to participate in appropriate treatment programs, and to comply with the recommendations of their treatment providers.

Parolees may be surprised to learn how much control parole officers may exercise over their lives. Parole officers generally have the authority to search a parolee, the parolee's vehicle or home, based upon any suspicion that the parolee has engaged in illegal activity, or even by virtue of a requirement that the parolee consent to being searched at will as a condition of receiving parole.

Parolees normally may not move without permission, and may need permission to change employers or to quit a job.

Travel Restrictions

Parolees are normally restricted from traveling outside of the state without permission from their parole officer.

Permission may be granted for short, purpose-driven visits, such as to attend an out-of-state funeral, and sometimes for a longer visit, such as to assist a sick relative. However, some parolees have difficulty getting permission for even limited travel, due to the nature of their convictions or concerns the parole officer's perception that they are flight risks.

A parolee who is convicted of a crime in a state other than his state of residence, or who has compelling reasons to move to another state, may ask for permission to relocate to another state. When appropriate, state departments of correction will work cooperatively to arrange the transfer and continuation of parole in the new state of residence.

Parole Violations

If a parolee is accused of violating the conditions of parole, the parolee may be arrested and detained pending a hearing on the alleged parole violation. The parolee may plead guilty to the violation and accept a punishment, or may request a hearing before a parole examiner.

A parole violation hearing is a probable cause hearing, meaning that the parole examiner need only find that it is more likely than not that the parolee committed a violation in order to convict the parolee of that violation.

If a parolee denies the parole violation and requests a hearing on the violation, an initial hearing may be held to review whether the parolee should remain in custody pending the conclusion of parole violation proceedings, or if the parolee should be allowed to return to the community pending a hearing on the violation.

A defendant convicted of a parole violation has the right to appeal the determination.

Depending upon the outcome of the probation violation proceedings, the parolee may be permitted to remain on parole, may be subjected to additional conditions of parole, may be given a more serious punishment that does not involve being returned to prison, or may be returned to prison.

Parole violations that are more likely to result in the parolee's return to prison include:

  • Repeated failure to attend scheduled meetings with a parole officer;

  • Being caught in the possession of a firearm or concealed weapon;

  • Being arrested for a new crime; and

  • Associating with known criminals.

A parolee may be convicted of a parole violation based upon a finding of criminal activity even if the parolee was not arrested for a crime or if the charge is dismissed.

Copyright © 2000 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 13, 2018.