Probation and parole both involve authorities overseeing convicted criminals within the community; however, probation is offered to those with less serious offenses than parole and is available only in conjunction with certain crimes, as defined by statute. Often, probation is provided instead of the defendant serving actual time behind bars, or after jail time of short duration. It may be combined with other forms of punishment, such as monetary fines, community service, or attending a court-ordered drug rehabilitation program.
A successful probation can help a defendant avoid incarceration as well as obtaining a suspension of the sentence if the defendant demonstrates good behavior. During his probation, the probationer is overseen by a probation officer, to whom he regularly reports. Federal probation officers have the additional responsibility of reporting to the judge during the sentencing phase, providing the court with information regarding the conformation of the sentence to the charged offenses.
Parole allows a prison inmate to be released from incarceration before the expiration of his sentence; however, the inmate (now a parolee) isn’t totally free: he must routinely report to his parole officer and must adhere to all conditions of his parole. These commonly include remaining within a certain geographic area; refraining from relationships with known or suspected criminals; maintaining employment; and attending support group meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, as needed.
Advocates of parole argue that parole saves money because it’s less expensive to supervise a parolee in the community than to keep him incarcerated in prison. Without it, they argue, more and more prisoners are simply warehoused at the taxpayer’s expense.
Additionally, they suggest that the parolee is given the opportunity to contribute to society through work and community involvement, which benefits the public good. Finally, parole advocates believe that the parole process helps to successfully rehabilitate inmates, as they are guided in their reentry into society by their assigned parole officer.
The “Truth in Sentencing” Movement
Since the 1970s, however, the “truth in sentencing” movement has challenged the concept of parole. Many states have abolished parole in their jurisdictions. There is no federal parole system. In 1984, federal parole was abolished in the Conference of Crime Control Act of 1984.
Replacing parole in these jurisdictions is the concept of “good time served”. In the federal system, federal prisoners can earn a maximum of 54 days “good time” credit per year against their sentence. These credits add up: “good time” calculations can ultimately remove as much as 33% (one-third) of the imposed sentence.
For both state and federal jurisdictions using the “good time” approach, time off for good behavior is an automatic deduction to the sentence as long as the inmate commits no infractions within the prison. There are limits to its application, however. “Good time” reductions are usually not available to those convicted of serious crimes and serving life sentences, and they are not available to convicts on Death Row.
Eligibility for Parole and Requesting Parole
For those remaining in jurisdictions with parole systems, the availability of parole does not guarantee that parole be granted to the inmate. First, those given a sentence of “life without the possibility of parole,” have received a determinate life sentence and are not allowed the parole option. However, in Pennsylvania, there is currently no parole or alternative sentencing for those convicted of first or second-degree murder. Pennsylvania is one of three states that still follow this approach to sentencing. A bill proposed to eliminate Juvenile sentences of life without parole has not passed as of Spring 2012.
For those eligible for parole, they must file a formal request with their state parole board when they periodically become eligible to do so. The parole board will then review not only their request, but their ability to establish a residence in the community; their ability to find a job and become self-supporting; as well as the testimony of experts and witnesses on the likelihood of the inmate’s successful rehabilitation and reentry into society.
Parole requests may be made at every opportunity, without success: the parole board considers each request on its own terms. Many repetitive requests are denied. For example, Mark David Chapman, the man who assassinated John Lennon in 1980, has requested and been denied parole several times by the New York State Parole Board. In doing so, the parole board considered not only Chapman’s requests, but testimony from experts as to his degree of mental illness, and the opposition to his release by Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono. Chatman’s next parole hearing will occur in October 2008.
Similarly, Charles Manson was denied his 11th request for parole by the California Department of Corrections parole board in May 2007. Manson will again be eligible for parole in 2012.
Trends in Parole
Movements to abolish parole are gaining in strength in various states across the country. Public outcry over violent deaths at the hands of parolees has been the impetus for most parole systems being curtailed or abolished. In 1986, for example, Virginia abolished parole in the face of public outrage when Richmond police officer George Taylor was shot and killed by a parolee during a routine traffic stop.
More recently, in September 2007, the governor of Connecticut abolished parole for all Connecticut inmates serving prison time for violent offenses. The governor did so in response to public outcry to the well-publicized Cheshire, Connecticut home invasion, which left a mother and her two teenage daughters dead after two parolees burglarized their home. Also in response to the shocking Cheshire killings, the Connecticut Parole Board reclassified criminals who break in the occupied homes in order to burglarize them as violent offenders.