Over 640,000 individuals are released from prison each year in America. Many of them will wind up in front of a parole officer.
To some ex-cons, it feels like all aspects of their lives are supervised and controlled by "the PO." In a way, they're right: If someone violates any of the numerous conditions that come with their early release, a parole officer can send them back.
Dealing with a parole officer is harrowing and unnerving. With recidivism rates running at 68% within three years of release, POs are working overtime. There's a case to be made that parole officers are part of the problem.
Some ex-offenders see parole officers as necessary to getting their freedom restored. Others claim that they would rather finish a full sentence behind bars than have to deal with a parole officer for an extended length of time.
What Gets an Ex-Offender Sent Back to Prison
Got a DUI? You probably won't get sent back. Smoked a little weed? Nope; you probably won't be put behind bars again. The other things that usually won't put you back in prison are:
One difference is that since the passage of the criminal justice reform package (and depending on the circumstances), a parolee might not even have to go back for a new felony conviction.
Each parolee is given a standard parole agreement with a set of conditions. Additions to these conditions can be made, but they're usually pretty straightforward and standard. Parole officers will use a "grid" to rate behavior among parolees.
If a person has a history of domestic abuse and goes to prison for aggravated assault, a violation of that protection order may be taken more seriously than for someone with a long history of meth use, theft or dishonesty.
Probationers Are Not Parolees
The two categories are not interchangeable – although an individual can be both.
Probationers haven't gone to prison, and some have felony convictions and suspended time behind bars facing them, so they may end up behind bars depending on their behavior.
Another difference between a probationer and parolee is that a judge has to decide whether to revoke probation and send someone to prison. A parole officer can push someone into prison immediately, as in "Go Directly to Jail and Do Not Pass Go."
There are eight other things that you need to know about life as a parolee:
1. Life Doesn't Always Mean Life
Unless sentenced to "life without parole," persons serving life sentences are eventually eligible for parole. Since each state can determine the minimum date before an inmate can meet with a parole board, the length of downtime varies. In some cases, a person has to wait 15 years, while in others, they may have to wait as long as 50 years.
2. Most Parole Boards Won't Give Parole to Lifers
Studies indicate that violent offenders are the least likely to re-offend, but they're almost never paroled at their first hearing. Former Maryland Circuit Court Judge Philip Caroom writes: "The refusal to grant parole to lifers has obliterated the distinction between a life sentence and a life without parole sentence."
3. Almost Anyone Can Be a Parole Board Member
Most states don't require experience with the justice system to work on a parole board. A few states have basic educational requirements. Even those with a minimum education level word their advisories vaguely, like: "Board members should have a bachelor's degree."
4. There Aren't Legal Rights in Parole Hearings
Persons maintain some basic and constitutionally protected rights in the justice system – but not in parole hearings. The courts consider parole an "act of grace," not a right. Constitutional protections are left at the door of the conference room.
5. Decisions Are Made for Any Reason
Courts permit parole boards to reach decisions based on anything that they choose. Some boards have developed decision guidelines, but most haven't. Even if there are guidelines in place, there's no law requiring board members to follow them.
6. No One Knows How to Get Parole
Parole boards don't advertise clear expectations for an inmate. Even when the board spells out what an inmate should do to get parole, the board often fails to follow through on their promises.
7. Parole Boards Manage Life on the Outside
Parole boards do more than just deciding who gets sent home; they also determine the parole conditions that a person must follow. Additionally, the board sets the penalties if someone violates parole.
8. Parole Boards Don't Always Meet the Inmate
Parole boards often make decisions about a person's freedom based strictly on the documentation in an inmate's file. With the average state board having to make almost 40 release decisions each weekday, that doesn't leave much time for thorough reviews.