Parole is the early release of a prisoner from incarceration. Parole is discretionary and is usually subject to certain conditions. Parole is not a commutation or a change in a prisoner's sentence. It is also not an act of clemency.
Parole is similar to probation because it grants freedom from incarceration. However, parole is different from probation because it is an early release after a period of incarceration. Probation is granted in lieu of incarceration. Parole is usually granted and supervised by an administrative agency of a state, such as a parole board. Probation is granted and supervised by the trial court that sentences a defendant.
When a trial court sentences a defendant, the trial court sets the maximum term of imprisonment for the defendant and not the actual term of imprisonment for the defendant. A state's board of parole sets the defendant's actual term of imprisonment, which actual term of imprisonment depends upon the defendant's eligibility for parole. Eligibility for parole is determined by the offense of which the defendant was convicted, the length of the defendant's sentence, and the defendant's good or bad behavior while he or she is incarcerated.
All prisoners are generally eligible for parole. Only prisoners who are sentenced to death are ineligible for parole. However, prisoners do not have a statutory or a constitutional right to parole. The granting of parole is at the discretion of a state's parole board.
The amount of time that a prisoner must serve prior to being eligible for parole depends upon each state's statutes. Some states authorize parole after the prisoner has served one-quarter or one-third of his or her sentence. The prisoner may also be given credit for good conduct time. Good conduct time is generally awarded to prisoners who observe prison rules and who participate in vocational, educational, or employment programs. However, the fact that a prisoner is eligible for parole does not mean that a state's parole board will grant parole. When the prisoner has not served all of his or her sentence, the granting of parole is entirely discretionary.
When a prisoner has served all of his or her sentence, whether by actual time or by credit for good conduct time, the prisoner is eligible for release from imprisonment. Such release is generally referred to as a mandatory release from imprisonment. However, the prisoner is still subject to supervision by a state's board of parole, even after he or she is released from imprisonment.
In some states, a prisoner may be eligible for parole if he or she has special needs. Such special needs may include the prisoner's age, physical or mental handicaps, or physical or mental illness. The determination of the prisoner's special needs usually depends upon whether the prisoner continues to be a threat to society or whether the prisoner is capable of committing further offenses. Even if the prisoner is released on parole based upon his or her special needs, the prisoner will generally remain under the supervision of a state's parole board.