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Why Parole Matters


In 1978, Illinois joined the minority of U.S. states that chose to abolish their discretionary parole. Since then, the prison population in Illinois skyrocketed by over 500 percent, from roughly 6,000 inmates in the 1970s to over 40,000 today. And while not the only reason, the abandonment of discretionary parole was a certain factor contributing to our state’s current prison crisis.

At core, parole is a period of supervised, early release from prison. It is an alternative to incarceration that—when done right—can reduce prison costs and reduce crime. Yet there are no shortage of myths surrounding parole in Illinois, from the assumption that it doesn’t work to the belief that Illinois already has parole in the form of determinate sentencing and mandatory supervised release (MSR).

Surprisingly (or maybe not), these myths are often held by the legislators who vote on parole bills.

We think it’s important that people have answers. For that reason, Restore Justice has put together a primer on parole as it relates to Illinois. Some of the topics it touches on include:

  • Parole vs. other types of supervised or early release
  • The history of parole in Illinois
  • The relationship between parole and recidivism (i.e. does parole work?)
  • How other states operate their discretionary parole systems

And finally, you can learn more about our current efforts to restore parole here.


A Primer on Parole in Illinois

For a full printable copy of the Primer, including footnotes and the appendix “Rules for parole eligibility and consideration in select states,” download the PDF

April 2018

In 1978, Illinois abolished discretionary parole system. Today, it remains one of just sixteen states (plus the District of Columbia) without any means for incarcerated people to earn parole. While not the only factor, the abandonment of parole has contributed directly to increased sentence lengths and more crowded prisons.

I. What is parole?

Parole describes the practice of releasing inmates before the completion of their maximum, court-appointed sentence. These released individuals—or parolees—then serve the remainder of their sentence under a period of supervised and conditional release, during which failure to follow certain rules may lead to the revocation of parole.

There are two types of parole—discretionary and mandatory—that differ in how release is granted.

In discretionary systems, release is granted following a decision by a parole board, which grants or withholds parole based on its assessment of individual cases.

In contrast, mandatory systemsautomatically release individuals to parole (i.e. without a hearing) when certain legally binding conditions are met. This type of parole is reserved for individuals serving time for less serious offenses. Mandatory parole can also describe the practice of automatically releasing individuals to serve a pre-set final portion of a courtappointed sentences (e.g. the last 6 months) outside prison walls and under supervision.

Parole is related to the concepts of indeterminate and determinate sentencing. When a person is eligible for discretionary parole, they receive an indeterminate sentence range (e.g. 3 to 7 years, 45 to 170 years). Individuals become eligible for parole at the minimum of the sentence range and may remain behind bars without being granted parole for up to the maximum for the range, after which they are automatically released.

In contrast, determinate sentences are set terms (e.g. 8 years, 30 months). Because they are predetermined, individuals given determinate sentences cannot earn parole, though they still be released earlier than their court-appointed term through other mechanisms.

Other types of supervised or early release

Sometimes, the term “parole” is used to refer to other mechanisms of early release, or other types of post-prison supervision. A number of these practices—and how they differ from parole—are described below:

  • Post-sentencing judicial review. Generally, a judge’s sentence is final and immutable. Sometimes, however, states may allow some individuals to receive a modified sentence. These reviews are often limited to individuals who meet certain narrow criteria. For instance, the Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama (and the following Montgomery v. Louisiana cases) outlawed the sentencing of children to mandatory life without parole and required all individuals serving that sentence to receive new modified sentences. In Illinois, this amounted to roughly one hundred people.
    This process is distinct from parole, which does not change the base sentence but rather where and how a sentence is served. Perhaps more saliently, these types of review are often narrow, making them a less common pathway for early release versus parole.
  • Executive pardons and commutation. Governors have the power to pardon or commute the sentences of inmates held in state prison. Governors may elect to reduce an inmate’s sentence down to “time served,” effectively releasing the inmate. Other times, governors can shorten but not fully commute a sentence to a point where the inmate serves a shortened period behind bars. In Louisiana, for instance, governors can alter life sentences to termed, non-life sentences (e.g. fifty years), which allows those inmates to be eventually released, potentially through discretionary parole. As a release mechanism pardons and commutations are powerful. However, they are granted relatively rarely and alter base sentences, unlike parole.
  • Mandatory supervised release (MSR). In Illinois, individuals convicted of certain offenses must serve a mandatory period of post-prison supervision known as MSR. Individuals under MSR must follow the same rules and conditions as parole and may be returned to prison for violating those terms.
    Unlike parole, MSR terms are always served after the full completion of a court-appointed prison sentence. In this way, MSR functions as an additional penalty for serious crimes and never as a means of early release. For that reason, it is misguided to consider MSR an appropriate substitute for either discretionary or mandatory parole.

II. Reducing repeat crimes or reducing recidivism: not the same thing

When state legislatures across the nation began abolishing parole in the late 1970s, their rationale was often that parole failed to increase public safety or reduce repeat offenses. And indeed, old data plus a few isolated cases of parolees committing new serious crimes did seem to suggest the inefficiency of parole.

More up-to-date research now shows discretionary parole can effectively reduce the likelihood of new crimes. The Pew Charitable Trusts found that parolees in New Jersey were 36 percent less likely to commit new crimes and return to prison compared to “maxouts,” or individuals released at the end of their term and without parole supervision. Separately, a 2005 study by the Urban Institute compared the benefits of discretionary parole to both unconditional releases and mandatory parole. The authors of the Urban study found that for black men with few prior arrests and women, parole could reduce the predicted likelihood of their rearrest by up to 20 and 34 percentage points, respectively, compared to unconditional release.

Technical violations, not new crimes, drive most of parole rearrests

Some studies suggest parole does not effectively reduce recidivism. These studies point to the comparable rates of recidivism between parolees and individuals released without supervision at the end of their prison terms.

But recidivism definitions are inconsistent. Some sources of data fail to differentiate technical violations from new crimes, rearrests from returns to prison, or new felony convictions from new misdemeanor convictions (for more on the topic of recidivism, you can check out our resource on understanding recidivism).

Only parolees and other individuals under parole-like supervision may be arrested and returned to prison for technical violations. This can include missing an appointment with a parole officer, alcohol consumption, or failing to find a suitable home.

When data sources distinguish between technical violations and other offenses, the benefits of parole become clearer. For instance, in their 2015 report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that while 34 percent of Illinois’ over 24,300 individuals exiting mandatory supervised release (MSR) or parole returned to prison, only 1 in 5 of these individuals were re-imprisoned for new crimes. That means that for all individuals in Illinois exiting parole-like supervision in 2015, only about 7 percent were reincarcerated for new offenses.

These data are especially noteworthy when one considers that the majority of “parolees” in Illinois are on MSR and not parole. This means that most of these released individuals were not granted release based on a careful assessment of their likelihood to reoffend.

People convicted of violent offenses are less likely to reoffend

Many express concern that granting parole to individuals convicted of violent offenses means that—should they offend—these individuals will inevitably commit new violent crimes. But the data tells another story.

Table 1 reports data from BJS on the rates at which individuals with different types of prior offense are rearrested, reconvicted or sent back to prison for new felony sentences within 3 years.[3]

Table 1. Rates of rearrest, reconviction and returns to prison with new sentence within 3 years, stratified by number of prior arrests and offense type

Table 1

These data suggest that:

  • Regardless of the number of prior arrests, people convicted of violent crimes are less likely to return to prison for a new sentence than those convicted of property crimes.
  • While often considered the most irredeemable, individuals convicted of murder are least likely to return to prison with new convictions, especially if they had few prior arrests.
  • Regardless of offense type, individuals with fewer prior arrests are less likely to recidivate compared to those with more prior arrests.

What about the relationship between a person’s original offense and subsequent ones? When they do commit new crimes, are people previously convicted of violent offenses more likely to commit new violent felonies upon release?

A study on from BJS sought to answer this question by examining the correlation between a person’s original committing offense and arrests for subsequent, post-release offenses. Table 2 recreates a BJS table on 5-year rearrest rates for prisoners from 30 states, broken out by original and post-release offense.

Table 2. Rate at which individuals are rearrested within 5 years for certain types of offense, based on type of original committing offense

Recall that rearrests do not automatically equate to new convictions or prison terms (as evidenced in Table 1).

No matter what an individual’s original offense, BJS found that the most serious offense for over half of all rearrested individuals were for public order offenses, which include disorderly conduct, loitering, and similar crimes.

And while those convicted of violent crimes were more like than other individuals to be rearrested for a violent offense, they are also less likely than individuals convicted of property crimes from reoffending in the first place.

Parole supervision costs less than incarceration

According to a 2015 spokesperson from the Illinois Department of Corrections, it costs Illinois roughly $22,000 to house an inmate for one year, compared to the $2,000 it costs annually to place that person on parole. This lines up with national data from a Pew study that put the cost of placing a person behind bars for a single day is on par with 10 days of parole supervision.

III. Designing parole systems: how other states do it

Among the 33 states that offer parole, there is wide variation in how parole systems operate. States differ in how they define parole eligibility, and how they address re-hearings following a decision by the board to deny parole. Still, a number of trends are evident:

  • Of the 33 states that offer parole, 18 do NOT automatically exclude individuals convicted of homicide from earning parole, while 15 do.
  • With few exceptions, states with parole permit individuals convicted of violent, nonhomicide offenses to earn parole.
  • Many states with parole restrict eligibility in cases of repeat serious offenses.
  • Many states do not limit the number of times a person’s case may be re-heard.
  • Some states have established special avenues for children and young people to earn parole where they otherwise would not be eligible.


Are individuals convicted of violent offenses eligible for parole in these states?

States diverge on how individuals convicted of violent offenses are treated in terms of parole eligibility. Overall, many (but not all) of states require individuals to serve a longer portion of their court-dispensed sentence behind bars (as can be seen in the above examples). That said, most states do not allow parole for individuals who receive convictions for separate violent offenses.

A few more examples:

  • Connecticut. In Connecticut, individuals convicted of one of four violent offenses— murder, capital felony murder, arson murder, and first-degree aggravated sexual assault—are parole-ineligible.
  • Iowa. While most individuals must serve one-third of their indeterminate sentence behind bars before becoming parole-eligible, individuals sentenced for a number of violent offenses—including second-degree murder, attempted murder, and firstdegree robbery—only become eligible after serving 70 percent of their sentence.
    Individuals convicted of attempted murder of a peace officer and murder committed by non-juveniles are parole-ineligible.
  • Nevada. Nevada does not exclude individuals from parole eligibility based on nature of offense, unless those individuals are condemned to death or sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

How many times and how regularly may a person be reconsidered for parole following a denial in states that offer parole?

With few outliers, most states with parole do not limit the number of times a case can be reheard following a parole denial. Rather, reconsideration is restricted more by the limitations states place on the period of time individuals must wait before applying for rehearing. Some states grant parole boards the authority to determine that period, while others designate a time window.

A few examples:

  • California. When California’s parole board chooses to deny parole, it also establishes the period until an individuals’ case can be reheard. The parole board is allowed to set a period of 3, 5, 7, 10 or 15 years, though inmates can file petitions for earlier parole reconsideration.
    • Similar states: Connecticut also grants its parole board the authority to set the period until a future re-hearing. Unlike California, however, Connecticut’s parole board may choose to indefinitely deny further hearings. Missouri’s parole board also assigns wait periods following denial, on the order of 1 to 5 years.
  • Georgia. For non-life sentences, individuals are automatically reconsidered for parole every 5 years following a denial; individuals serving life are reconsidered every 8 years.Similar states: West Virginia permits annual re-hearings for most sentences, and every 3 years for life sentences. Once a person has served their mandatory minimum, Iowa requires annual re-hearings for individuals denied parole, unless that person is serving a life sentence.
    • Similar states: West Virginia permits annual re-hearings for most sentences, and every 3 years for life sentences. Once a person has served their mandatory minimum, Iowa requires annual re-hearings for individuals denied parole, unless that person is serving a life sentence.
  • Louisiana. Following a denial, individuals may request a re-hearing after (1) six months for non-violent offenses; (2) annually for violent offenses; or (3) two years for sex offenses murder, or manslaughter. Requests do not guarantee a re-hearing, and requests may be denied for up to ten years, after which an individual’s case for parole must be reconsidered.

Are individuals convicted of violent offenses eligible for parole in these states?

States diverge on how individuals convicted of violent offenses are treated in terms of parole eligibility. Overall, many (but not all) of states require individuals to serve a longer portion of their court-dispensed sentence behind bars (as can be seen in the above examples). That said, most states do not allow parole for individuals who receive convictions for separate violent offenses.

A few more examples:

  • Connecticut. In Connecticut, individuals convicted of one of four violent offenses— murder, capital felony murder, arson murder, and first-degree aggravated sexual assault—are parole-ineligible.
  • Iowa. While most individuals must serve one-third of their indeterminate sentence behind bars before becoming parole-eligible, individuals sentenced for a number of violent offenses—including second-degree murder, attempted murder, and firstdegree robbery—only become eligible after serving 70% of their sentence. Individuals convicted of attempted murder of a peace officer and murder committed by nonjuveniles are parole-ineligible.
  • Nevada. Nevada does not exclude individuals from parole eligibility based on nature of offense, unless those individuals are condemned to death or sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

How many times and how regularly may a person be reconsidered for parole following a denial in states that offer parole?

With few outliers, most states with parole do not limit the number of times a case can be reheard following a parole denial. Rather, reconsideration is restricted more by the limitations states place on the period of time individuals must wait before applying for rehearing. Some states grant parole boards the authority to determine that period, while others designate a time window.

A few examples:

  • California. When California’s parole board chooses to deny parole, it also establishes the period until an individuals’ case can be reheard. The parole board is allowed to set a period of 3, 5, 7, 10 or 15 years, though inmates can file petitions for earlier parole reconsideration.
    • Similar states: Connecticut also grants its parole board the authority to set the period until a future re-hearing. Unlike California, however, Connecticut’s parole board may choose to indefinitely deny further hearings. Missouri’s parole board also assigns wait periods following denial, on the order of 1 to 5 years.
  • Georgia. For non-life sentences, individuals are automatically reconsidered for parole every 5 years following a denial; individuals serving life are reconsidered every 8 years.
    • Similar states: West Virginia permits annual re-hearings for most sentences, and every 3 years for life sentences. Once a person has served their mandatory minimum, Iowa requires annual re-hearings for individuals denied parole, unless that person is serving a life sentence.
  • Louisiana. Following a denial, individuals may request a re-hearing after (1) six months for non-violent offenses; (2) annually for violent offenses; or (3) two years for sex offenses murder, or manslaughter. Requests do not guarantee a re-hearing, and requests may be denied for up to ten years, after which an individual’s case for parole must be reconsidered.

What sort of youth-specific parole (or parole-like) systems exist in other states?

Many states have enacted policies that provide special consideration to individuals who enter prison as young people. A few examples:

  • California. Individuals serving long sentences for offenses committed before age 23 become eligible for parole review after 15, 20, or 25 years served. This program excludes individuals serving sentences for certain sex offenses or multiple prior violent felonies. 
  • Connecticut. As of 2015, Connecticut retroactively granted parole eligibility to individuals who entered prison before age 18 with sentences of 10 years or longer. For individuals serving sentences 50 or less years, parole eligibility is granted after the longer of 60% of sentence served or 12 years; individuals serving longer sentences become eligible after 30 years.
  • Florida. For juveniles sentenced to life, Florida grants eligibility for a post-sentencing judicial review after 15, 20, or 25 years served, depending on the offense. While similar in some ways, post-sentencing review is not the same as parole, since the granting of parole does not change the original sentence. Individuals granted a reduced sentence under this program must serve a mandatory probation period of up to 5 years.
  • Iowa. In Iowa, individuals convicted of first-degree murder or sexual assault leading to serious injury are ineligible for parole unless the individual was under 18 at the commission of offense, in which case parole eligibility is granted at 25 years.

IV. Sources

A special thanks to Jean Snyder and the team at Project 1-11.

Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, Illinois Results First: The High Cost of Recidivism. (Springfield, IL: Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, 2015). http://www.icjia.state.il.us/spac/pdf/Illinois_Results_First_1015.pdf.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Impact of Parole in New Jersey (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, November 2013). http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/pcs_assets/2013/psppnjparolebrief pdf.pdf  

Solomon, A., Kachnowski, V. and Bhati, A., Does Parole Work? Analyzing the Impact of Postprison Supervision on Rearrest Outcomes (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, March 2005). http://webarchive.urban.org/UploadedPDF/311156_Does_Parole_Work.pdf.

Mills. S., “State keeps 1,250 parolees behind bars due to housing shortage” (Chicago, IL: Chicago Tribune, January 2015). http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ctviolatingatthedoormet20150125story.html  

Kaeble, D. and Bonczar, T., Probation and Parole in the United States, 2015 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, February 2017). https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ppus15.pdf.

Shihadeh, E., Nordyke, K., and Reed, A., Recidviism in the State of Louisiana: An analysis of 3- and 5-year Recidivism Rates Among Long-Serving Offenders (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University, August 2013).

Alper. M., By the Numbers: Parole Release and Revocation Across 50 States (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Law School, April 2016).
https://robinainstitute.umn.edu/publications/numbers-parole-release-and-revocationacross-50-states

Thomas, J., Slaughter, C., and Shone, Meaghan, State of Montana Board of Pardons and Parole: 2015 Biennial Report (Deer Lodge, MT: Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, January 2015).

Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, March 2009).
http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/assets/2009/03/02/pspp_1in31_report_final_web_32609.pdf


For a full printable copy of the Primer, including footnotes and the appendix “Rules for parole eligibility and consideration in select states,” download the PDF

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