Parole Decisions

Parole decisions have important implications. For prisoners, such decisions mean early release or define the conditions of release. For the public, prisoner reentry raises concerns about safety and community integration. Despite waning enthusiasm for rehabilitation in some countries, by using advances in risk assessment and by partnering with correctional agencies, parole is ideally situated to contribute to offender rehabilitation while also addressing ongoing concerns by the public and politicians regarding the costs of corrections and risk to public safety.

Notwithstanding changes in legislation over the past three decades, parole remains an integral part of the criminal justice system. At both international and domestic levels, parole continues to be relied on to ensure the timely and safe transition of offenders from the confines of incarceration to community supervision. In this manner, it acts as a tollbooth for offenders as they pass from prison back to the community. Parole decision makers, informed by law and policy and on a case-by-case basis, determine the amount of toll required. Despite variations across countries and jurisdictions, their decision is typically informed by guidelines regarding eligibility, some element of desert or judgment that the prisoner has served sufficient time according to the seriousness of his or her crime(s), and a judgment that community safety would not be jeopardized by the offender’s release.

Parole Definition

Variability in the use of the term parole has been an obstacle in conducting a review of parole research and practice. In this entry, parole refers to discretionary or conditional release. The former reflects release prior to the expiration of the sentence, whereas the latter reflects the designation of conditions that must be met by the offender when he or she is granted mandatory parole. Typically, if the conditions are not met, the offender may be returned for a further period of incarceration. Some jurisdictions impose guidelines regarding limits to eligibility for parole release following breaches in the community on an earlier release.

Parole Context

Despite the waning interest in parole due to a gradual shift in public policy toward a focus on punitive solutions to crime, a 2001 review of U.S. paroling jurisdictions conducted by the Association of Paroling Authorities International indicates that parole boards with legislative discretionary release authority have survived in approximately two thirds (34) of state and federal correctional jurisdictions. Similarly, in Canada, all provinces and the federal correctional system have parole boards, although the federal board has jurisdiction for some provincial offenders. Indeed, Canada has served as a model for numerous countries in terms of parole policy and training (e.g., Australia, Bermuda, Great Britain, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Russia).

Several examples will serve to highlight the scope of parole and its potential impact on corrections and communities. In 2003, the U.S. Parole Commission made 10,771 decisions regarding release or revocation. In the fiscal year 2004 to 2005, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole conducted 9,588 hearings regarding parole violations and 19,624 panels/ interviews for parole. In 2005, the Massachusetts Parole Board conducted approximately 10,000 face-to-face hearings and rendered decisions on approximately 20,000 cases. It is difficult to determine the exact number of parole decisions made annually, but a reasonable extrapolation from these data suggests that 400,000 would not be inflated. Moreover, since offenders are released on both parole and expiration of sentence, it is not surprising that close to 600,000 offenders are released and return to communities across the United States each year.

In Canada, the numbers are smaller but equally compelling. In 2005, the National Parole Board made an estimated 22,295 decisions. Also, this board made more than 16,711 contacts with victims regarding release decisions and reviewed 22,900 pardon requests. Although these data do not control for population rates, parole decisions clearly affect the lives of a significant number of offenders, their families, and the community at large.

In the United States, from 1980 to 2003, the proportion of discretionary parole releases from state prisons markedly diminished from about 55% to about 22%. During the same time period, mandatory parole releases (conditions imposed) increased from about 18% to about 36%, whereas expiration of sentence releases only modestly increased from 14% to 19%. These changes are partly due to statutory changes eliminating parole release and partly due to increased reluctance on the part of boards of parole to release offenders prior to expiration of sentence. This trend in parole decision making situates potential contributions of parole decision research and can perhaps best be understood through the lens of public policy, particularly in North America.

Prior to 1970, the belief was that the criminal justice system should be used to rehabilitate offenders; this was reflected in indeterminate sentencing and discretionary release practices. However, doubts regarding evidence of effective rehabilitation programs emerged, paralleling an increase in interest in retribution as a means of addressing criminal justice concerns. This just-deserts model focused on determinancy and consistency in sentencing, clearly at odds with the earlier discretionary model. This justice model also advocated using incarceration sparingly. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, theories of deterrence came to the fore and with them an appetite for harsher punishments. This quickly led to increased incarceration rates and, subsequently, increased costs of prisons. Public policy in this era generally disputed evidence regarding interventions to reduce re-offending and ignored parole as a viable strategy to address increased prison populations. Only since the late 1990s has an abundance of evidence regarding risk assessment and correctional programming been accumulated and more widely disseminated to criminal justice officials, suggesting that a new model for parole might be profitably integrated into the criminal justice system. Nonetheless, these data are still often hotly debated on ideological grounds. Encouragingly, in 2005, the U.S. Congress introduced legislation to allocate $300 million over 4 years in an effort to more successfully transition prisoners to the community. These reentry initiatives highlight how parole might be well situated to complement existing sentencing and correctional strategies, thereby enhancing public safety through attention to evidence-based practice.

Importantly, government publications describing parole policy, parole board member training, and contemporary roles of parole abound. Surprisingly, few of these publications overtly address the issue of parole decision making as a process, although the training handbook referenced above illustrates several different methods employed. Moreover, with the notable exception of the flurry of research on standardized risk assessment instruments in the 1970s and 1980s, academia has generally ignored parole decision making as a research topic. Considering parole research in terms of content (risk assessment, decision frameworks), process (decision strategies), and outcome (recidivism, effective correctional programs) highlights areas warranting further systematic investigation.

Parole Content

Initially, in the mid-1970s, given the reliance on clinical opinion, researchers sought to improve accuracy through the development of statistical instruments that distinguished between successful releases and parole failures. Many parole boards continue to use such instruments to distinguish risk levels among prisoners, and risk is routinely considered in parole decision trees and matrices. Such instruments have consistently been found to be more predictive of outcome than subjective professional judgments. Moreover, they assist in diminishing the frequency with which offenders who are poor parole risks are inappropriately released, increasing the speed with which offenders who are good parole risks are released, and diminishing unnecessary incarceration expenditures. For mandated parole, assessment of risk appears to be used to inform the type and number of conditions imposed by the board.

Risk assessment tools, however, expressly eliminate from consideration any factors unique to the offender or to his or her context. As such, it is important that they not be used without consideration of additional information. Indeed, empirical research demonstrates that estimates of risk derived from statistical tools are not the only factors considered by decision makers in reaching release decisions. For example, offenders’ criminal and institutional history and previous release recommendations have been found to affect parole decisions. Interestingly, the use of interviews appears not to improve accuracy in predicting parole success.

In Canada, a framework to guide parole decision makers in integrating statistical and additional information has been developed. Using a statistical risk assessment instrument as its anchor, the framework outlines specific additional areas for consideration (criminal history, risk management, disinhibitors, case-specific factors, institutional adjustment, offender change, and release plan). Preliminary results demonstrate that the use of this framework leads to reductions in decision errors and high rates of predictive accuracy regarding parole outcome. Moreover, feedback suggests that the framework assists in the provision of a decision rationale and is useful in the training of new parole board members.

Parole Process

Parole release obviously involves making judgments; hence, discretion is required. Research, however, is required to demonstrate that parole decisions are consistent and discriminating—that is, board members would arrive at similar decisions for the same case, and they would distinguish between cases representing good and poor parole risks. Importantly, this distinction should also lead to demonstrations of parole decisions’ validity through follow-up research. To date, two structured approaches for parole decision making have been described in the literature. The first is a matrix or grid method, as seen in Maryland, which integrates severity of crime (arson, manslaughter, murder, rape, robbery crimes vs. assault, burglary crimes) and risk (scored information on prior criminal history, age at time of current offense, time crime free, prior escapes or parole violations, substance use) in establishing a range of time to be served corresponding to each cell of a matrix. The second is a sequential or decision tree method, as seen in Pennsylvania. Through the assignment of a rating for type of offense, risk/need assessment, institutional programming, and institutional behavior, a cumulative score helps determine whether the offender is likely or unlikely to be a good parole risk. The sequential method typically incorporates more factors into the process than the matrix. Both approaches are intended to provide structure to parole decision making, but empirical evidence describing and validating the mechanisms underlying these methods is almost absent. Nonetheless, transparency of the decision process should yield less capricious parole decisions.

Parole Outcome

Ultimately, parole boards are held accountable for parole violations, yet this is an imprecise dependent measure of parole decision making. Dynamic risk prediction suggests that proximal factors are important in risk assessment and its management. Hence, if a decision is made to parole a prisoner and 6 months later, owing to deterioration while in the community (e.g., reinvolvement with drugs, loss of job, loss of stable accommodation), the parolee is returned to prison, does this mean that the original decision to grant parole was flawed? In part, it would seem desirable to have a standard of practice that defines a quality decision model against which decisions can be compared. Congruence with this standard of practice may be a more suitable criterion for evaluating parole decision making than outcome. Encouragingly, from a reentry perspective, discretionary parole release appears to be more successful than mandatory release. The latter study controlled for offense type, prior record, age, ethnicity, education, and gender, finding that those released from prison via discretionary parole were more than twice as likely as those on a mandatory release to successfully complete their parole period.

Given the numbers of parole decisions made, as well as the consequences of inaccurate decisions, parole would appear to be an area for optimism. Indeed, parole can serve as an important motivation for prisoners to engage in programs and adhere to supervision conditions. Most important, even modest reductions in decision errors will yield significant gains—individual, social, and financial.


  1. Burke, P. (2003). A handbook for new parole board members. Retrieved from
  2. Burke, P., & Tonry, M. (2006). Successful transition and reentry for safer communities: A call to action for parole. Silver Spring, MD: Center for Effective Public Policy.

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