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On the Issue of Parole


By Campaign Zero

Parole helps reduce the harm of the carceral state while creating space for transformative change and true public safety.

What is Parole?

Parole allows incarcerated people to have their sentence reviewed by the Parole Board after serving a specified portion of their sentence in prison. If deemed ready by the board, rehabilitated individuals will transition to a period of “community supervision,” which allows them to return home to their families and jobs while formally remaining under the custody of the Department of Corrections.

People on parole have regular check-ins with parole officers and must follow stipulated rules until their time on supervision ends. Violating these rules can potentially send them back to prison. Parole provides a transition period for those re-entering their communities and has been associated with more positive outcomes than those who max out their sentence.

Our Belief

Campaign Zero advocates for the restoration and improvement of parole, both the quality of legislation guiding decisions and the appointment of decision-makers themselves. We see parole’s potential for incentivizing readiness and returning people to their families, friends, jobs, etc. People do best when in community, surrounded by those who they love and who love them. Parole helps reduce the harm of the carceral state while creating space for transformative change and true public safety.

Our Focus

Campaign Zero has created a campaign to research and assess parole throughout the United States. Our campaign maps out the current landscape of parole, collecting statutes and state codes across key levers that guide parole release across the country. Ultimately, our work analyzes the most impactful changes to policy to ensure release to those ready to transition back into the community.

Our campaign has three primary focus areas: 

Parole Board Members

Who are the people appointed to parole boards? What are their backgrounds? How are they selected, and how much power do they have?

In most states, the governor appoints parole board members, and the decision is confirmed by the legislature. These board members have tremendous discretion in deciding who is released. Ideally, each state’s parole board members will have a wide range of experiences, reflecting the community they represent.

Because of their power, the composition of the parole board is one of the most impactful ways to improve the system. State statutes often give the board authority to establish its rules/procedures for deciding release. Governors have a tremendous responsibility to appoint qualified, experienced board members with experience in rehabilitation and re-entry.

The number of members on parole boards is established by statute and varies from state to state, from three members (Kansas, Florida, Alabama) to 21 members (California). As of Spring 2024, there are 380 parole board member positions nationwide. We’ve reviewed these members for many factors, including pay, demographics, and career background. We found that board members are overwhelmingly white, male, and are far more likely to have “front-end” criminal legal experience (law enforcement officer, prosecutor, judge) than “back-end” experience (parole officer, rehabilitation, re-entry). Generally, being a parole board member is a full-time job, but several states allow members to serve part-time, and six states pay daily/hourly rates.

Parole is meant to evaluate a person’s transformation while incarcerated and determine their readiness to return to community. Board members with exclusively “front-end” experience are only familiar with sentencing — the person’s worst moment — and often lack the lived experience of seeing people change over time. All parole board members should have experience with rehabilitation and re-entry, allowing them to adequately evaluate incarcerated people’s progress and readiness to return home.

Parole Improvement

How can we improve the laws governing parole eligibility and the actions of parole boards?

Thirty-four states1 have discretionary parole available for offenses committed today, meaning people sentenced today can go before the parole board after a specified time in prison. Eligibility only guarantees a review by the board, it does not guarantee release. The types of eligible offenses vary from state-to-state, and many of these states still have life without parole (LWOP) sentences and capital punishment. Generally, the more severe an offense, the less likely it is to be parole-eligible (despite all evidence that shows people arrested for violent offenses are less likely to reoffend). 

We are working to identify levers for change to improve release decisions/outcomes. Simple, common sense changes, such as ensuring that an incarcerated person can appear and speak at their own hearing, go a long way to making sure parole board members focus on a person’s readiness to return to their community rather than the worst moment of the person’s life. Parole is about who the person is today — it should never focus on “re-trying” a case. Parole hearings should be focused on the person’s restorative efforts while incarcerated (programming, jobs, etc.) and their readiness to return home.

Parole Restoration

How do we bring back parole in states that have abolished it, restore an incentive for rehabilitation, and get more people back into the community?

Seventeen states have abolished discretionary parole for all (most) offenses, meaning people convicted of an offense today will not be given a parole-eligible sentence. 

Generally speaking, people incarcerated before the state’s ban remain parole-eligible, and these states still have parole boards to consider the incarcerated person’s release. Anyone incarcerated after the ban must serve the vast majority, and potentially the entirety, of their sentence behind bars and do not have institutional support as they transition back home. For example, Maine was the first state to abolish parole in 1976, meaning nobody incarcerated between 1976 to present day may have their status reviewed by a parole board. 

Sixteen more states abolished parole between 1977 and 2000. After a couple decades of silence, Louisiana passed a law in March 2024 to abolish discretionary parole for anyone committing an offense after August 1, 2024. Mississippi is the only state to abolish (1995) and restore (2008) parole.

People are generally unaware that parole has been abolished in their state. A 2023 YouGov Blue poll of Maine residents found that 74% of people thought the state had parole. Local groups in Maine and Illinois are currently working to restore parole in their states.

Parole is a release mechanism most of us have heard of but likely don’t know much about the lived reality. Our campaign hopes to contribute to public education and provide policy solutions for organizers and advocates. 

Together, we can improve public safety and honor every human’s inherent ability to renew and restore.

We’re grateful to organizations such as the Robina Institute and Prison Policy Initiative, who have done tremendous work before us. We hope to build on their successes and help invite legislators to create a better parole system. 

  1. Currently, 34 states have discretionary parole. However, the Louisiana legislature has passed a bill (signed into law) that will abolish discretionary parole on August 1, 2024, dropping this total number to 33 states. ↩︎

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