An author from California recently asked a few questions about the parole system for a work-in-progress. Her character was convicted of attempted murder and paroled from a women’s correctional facility in Nevada.
For those writers who have a plot or screenplay involving an inmate on parole, here is a quick tutorial to help you with the parole process.
What is parole?
Parole is an early release from prison. It is a conditional release and often granted after a partially served prison sentence. Parole should not be confused with probation, which typically occurs prior to a jail sentence, and often instead of the sentence (or after a partially served sentence) if the offender follows particular rules. A judge sets probation during sentencing.
Who makes the decision to release an inmate on parole?
Parole boards, not the judge, have this power to grant an early release for a parolee. Parole boards have a lot of discretion, almost unlimited when deciding who gets out of prison and why. They can use evidence based on hearsay and rumor in their hearings. They often rule based on instinct. Plus their decisions are not typically reviewable by the courts. The reasons for their decision tend not to be open to the public either.
Only a fraction of criminals up for parole actually are granted release. This would include those who have committed violent offenses (even though they pose little danger to society). Parole boards are usually required to consider certain factors like: the severity of the original offense, the inmate’s behavior; statements submitted by victims and family members. Regardless, boards make decisions for almost any reason and are not required to explain why a decision was made. Cursory reasons are enough.
Parole board members tend to be former elected officials or appointees by the governor, or former aides and political allies. Often the statutes are vague about the basic qualifications necessary to be a parole board member.
Parole boards are a fast changing area of the criminal system so depending on the state and year your novel is set, be aware things may have changed. Some states have abolished discretionary parole and parole boards, and moved to a mandatory parole system after certain time served. Nevada still has a parole board. Here is a 2015 article on parole boards and changes that are in the works if you are interested.
What conditions must a parolee follow while on parole?
When an inmate is released on parole, there are strict conditions that he must follow to remain on parole. If a parolee violates any of those conditions, parole can be revoked. If revoked, the parolee returns to prison to serve the remainder of the sentence. If the parolee violates his parole by committing another crime, the parolee will serve the remainder of the original sentence and then serve time for the new conviction.
Typical requirements and rules include: report to a parole officer (regularly and frequently); remain in the same place of residence unless permission is obtained in advance from a parole officer; avoid drugs and alcohol; do not possess, own, or carry a weapon; avoid associating with or contacting victims, witnesses, gangs, or people with criminal records; seek permission from a parole officer for travel out-of-state; submit to random searches of their homes, cars, and persons (blood, urine, saliva) for disease, drugs, or other contraband; and attend counseling classes (like rehab or therapy).
Here is an example of the general conditions in a Nevada parole agreement.
Are parole records disclosed publicly?
Criminal records are publicly available. Employers search criminal records frequently when vetting potential employees. Victims of crimes often search these records and databases to keep track to an offender’s whereabouts for obvious safety and peace of mind reasons.
There are services for victims to receive notifications about the changing custody status of a particular offender, like Vine. In addition to Vine, most states have crime victim resources that provide assistance. For example, Nevada statutes allow for a victim to be notified of an inmate’s custody status and possible parole release. These services will also help a victim file a protective order against a parolee who harasses or threatens them.
A victim can also call the parole officer directly. The parole officer will be listed in the criminal records found online. Parolees have to check-in with their officer periodically, so the officer will have the most up to date info.
Are parole hearings open to the public?
Parole hearings are open to the public in some states and not in others. In Nevada, hearings are open to the public.
Can an inmate choose where they want to be paroled?
In most instances, a parolee will be released to the judicial district or county in which the inmate was convicted. Most states have laws that require the parolee to be returned to the county that was the last legal residence of the offender prior to incarceration. The thought is the parolee’s former community may be the best opportunity for help and to support a parolee’s needs.
However, exceptions are sometimes made. A parolee could return to another county if it would be in the best interest of the public. The board makes this decision. Once paroled, a parolee is prevented from moving from county to county because of their parole conditions (see above). But a parolee might request from their parole officer permission to move. Reasons a parole officer might grant such a request include: to protect the parolee; for opportunities to work or study; to live closer to family members who can aid in parolee’s rehab; or for necessary medical or mental health treatment.
On a closing note, starting over for an inmate once released can be hard mostly because their criminal record follows them. Records are a big part of our public identity. Unless the criminal charges are expunged or sealed from official record searches, criminal records are available to the public and searched by wide range of entities and people, like employers, landlords, neighbors, and financial institutions. Criminal records often tank employment opportunities and force released criminals back into the same underground environment they came from before prison. If you want more information on how criminal records wreck reputations, see this 2015 article in the Boston Globe.