Federal parole vs. state parole: What's the difference?

There is a lot of misconception about parole vs. probation and state vs. federal vs. local

By Bob Walsh

Every once in a while you hear questions about federal parole vs. state parole. There is a lot of misconception about parole vs. probation and state vs. federal vs. local and so I thought I would kick it around a bit.

Parole is a fairly old concept and was not uncommon with military prisoners of war who were officers, and therefore gentlemen in the traditional sense. It was not unknown for a captor to accept the parole (word of honor) of a gentleman officer prisoner that he would not be a problem or attempt to escape, and they could be released from actual custody (though not from constructive custody) to move about the area around his prison.

Such a prisoner could even be released to go home and be relied upon to not reenter the war until he was properly exchanged for a similarly placed officer from the other side. This was, I understand, an informal but widely recognized gentlemen’s agreement.

Formal parole and probation systems for domestic criminals are establish by law and the language in those laws can define pretty much anything as pretty much anything.

Generally speaking, parole is a release from custody after already being found guilty and sentenced for a felony, and is typically a reduction of the prescribed period of incarceration.

Probation is a release from custody, typically monitored by a court system, either prior to final adjudication or subsequent to conviction, often a misdemeanor conviction. Probation officers are usually largely social workers in function. Parole agents are typically more public safety and enforcement oriented, though there is considerable overlap.

Within the federal system, parole is almost but not quite dead. You can’t be considered for parole as part of a federal sentence for any crime committed after November 1 of 1987, generally speaking. This change was made by congress and not the courts or the Attorney General. That being said, the U.S. Parole Commission still exists.

Federal offenders sentenced for crimes committed before November 1, 1987, military prisoners and persons under witness protection can still be covered by federal parole. It should be noted that even though federal felonies are no longer subject to parole releases these sentences often have a period of supervised release as part of the sentence, which is more properly termed probation and is served under the jurisdiction of the court.

The first federal law allowing for the reduction of sentence of federal prisoners on the basis of their good conduct dates to 1867. This reduction was typically one month per year served.  The good conduct was certified to by the warden. These releases had to be approved by the Secretary of the Interior until 1872, after which the recently created Department of Justice handled the matter.  

In 1875 this was changed to five days per month in which no misconduct was sustained against the offender.

In 1902 the criteria was standardized throughout the federal system, and graduated to allow for more good time credit for more lengthy sentences.

It is important to note that there was no system of supervision for those released for good time. It was not strictly speaking either probation or parole. It was merely a reduction of sentence due to good conduct while in prison.

In 1910 the federal parole system was created. Federal prisoners could be released on parole after having served 1/3 of their sentence. The decision to grant or revoke such paroles was made by the parole board at the individual prison. The position of parole officer was created, though provision was made to involve the U.S. Marshall in the supervision program.

In 1913 it became possible for life prisoners to be released on parole after having served at least 15 years.

Federal probation still exists, and like pretty much all other U.Ss probation functions is part of the a system.  It is common for a federal prisoner to be sentenced to x number of months in custody and y number of months on supervised probation as part of their basic sentence.  It is no longer possible to shorten that basic sentence via parole except for those exceptions noted above.

At the state level, parole has morphed radically within the last few months in the formerly great state of California. Since October 1 of last year most persons released from state custody will be overseen by local agencies, rather than state parole.  Most of this local supervision is being provided by existing and expanded probation departments though some counties have at least looked at the possibility of setting up their own parole divisions. So far I don’t know of any counties that have actually done so.   

I have not heard of the feds even remotely considering the reinstatement of parole so my inclination is to think that they are happy with what they’ve got, and seem to think what they are doing now is working for them.

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