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A primer on how parole works in California

| 06 May 2009

Ninety-five percent of California prisons are serving a "determinate sentence," which means their imprisonment will equal the time they were sentenced to serve, less a fixed reduction for each day of good conduct in prison. For these prisoners there is no possibility of an earlier release, which is what "parole" mostly meant before 1977. (The other five percent are so called 'lifers" who are sentenced to a term of life; for these prisoners parole is theoretically possible after the completion of a fixed term, e.g., 15 or 25 years).

Today, parole supervision involves an additional sentence of up to three years of correctional custody in the community, for all prisoners released from a California prison. During this time, the ex-prisoner is "supervised" by a parole agent and subject to numerous conditions (such as allowing police searches of one's home and person, not using illegal drugs, and obeying all orders of one's parole agent).

California parole facts (2007)


Parolees: 126,906

• Parolees per 100,000 adults: 335.6

• Parolees returned to prison from parole: 92,645
     for a parole violation: 71,837
     for a new conviction : 20,808

Parolees at large (2005): 19,446*

Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

*Joan Petersilia, California's Correctional Paradox of Excess and Deprivation, "Crime and Justice: A Review of Research," Vol. 37:207-278 (2008)

Release from prison

While it's widely accepted that persons released to the community after time in prison need careful efforts at planning and direct assistance in reintegrating into their community (termed "re-entry"), California efforts remain inadequate. More than half of all persons released from a California prison have received no rehabilitative programming, and little if any planning for their release.

When someone leaves prison, he or she is given "gate money," typically $200 — some of which immediately goes for transportation (most California prisons are in the Valley, and most prisoners return to the Los Angeles area). If the former prisoner has a partner or relative to live with, one who meets the approval of parole authorities, that's an advantage: at least they have a home where parole authorities can find them and from which they can seek employment or the modest forms of assistance available to parolees in California. If not, the parolee will likely spend much of his or her remaining gate money to pay for a room in an inexpensive motel or hotel.

Meeting the parole officer

The parolee is usually instructed to appear at an assigned parole unit, to meet a parole officer, on the first business day after release. There, the parole agent reviews the conditions of parole with the ex-prisoner, confirms information in the person's file, and discusses the parolee's plans for employment, school, reunification with family, etc. This helping function is sincere but quite limited, as parole units have few real resources for helping parolees with employment, education, housing, or drug treatment. At one time, individual diagnostic interviewing was a big part of the parole system: your agent got to know you and tried to get a caseworker's holistic view of you as a person, and your likely problems in reintegrating into society. But this aspect of the process has withered.

Categories of parole supervision

Currently, parolees supervision requirements depend on the level of risk that the person is believed to pose. "High-control" parolees are considered to pose a greater risk to public safety because they were convicted of a violent felony, must register as a sex offender, or are considered to be a gang member. For these parolees, the authorities are required to make two in-person contacts a month. For those assigned to a regular caseload, known as "control service," the parole agent is required to conduct one face-to-face meeting a month. Those in a third category, "minimum service," must report quarterly at most.

There's much debate as to whether fine-grained risk analysis could allow for greater control over high-risk parolees. Current staffing levels and caseloads, however, don't permit parole agents to apply sustained personal attention and/or pressure in individual cases — short of deciding to return the parolee to prison, which continues to happen too often.

Re-entry services

Part of what the parole officer is supposed to do is be a service provider — though by the time I was studying the system, in the '80s, parole agents had mostly come to identify with law enforcement. This was associated with the increasingly punitive tone of both California law ("punishment" became the official goal of imprisonment) and the rhetoric of elected officials. But it also coincided with a systematic under-investment in services for parolees, and the poor in general, in California. Parole agents since the 1980s have had very few resources for providing services. They might provide a parolee with a voucher for a few nights in an SRO hotel, or they might be able to get the ex-prisoner into some kind of a drug-treatment program — although typically it would be something like Narcotics Anonymous that's free and open to anyone.

Today there has been a very partial re-adoption of rehabilitation as a goal of the correctional system (prison and parole). This has led some reformers to hope that parole will once again become more focused on achieving rehabilitative success. The hope is that this would help redress a system which sees half of all its parolees returned to prison for a violation of the conditions of parole (with no additional criminal conviction). Another 14 percent are sent back to prison for a new criminal conviction — making for an overall annual re-imprisonment rate of more than 60 percent. The odds of returning at least once during three years of parole have been estimated as a whopping 70 percent.