Parole is the conditional release of a prisoner who has not served out a full sentence. A long-standing practice of the U.S. justice system, parole is granted for a variety of reasons, including the “good behavior” of a prisoner, as well as overcrowding in prisons.
Prisoners on parole, or parolees, are assigned to a parole officer upon their release. It is the job of the parole officer to meet periodically with the parolee to ensure that the terms of the release are followed; to provide guidance and counseling; and to help the parolee find a job, housing, a therapist, or any other means of support. Parolees who break the release agreement may be returned to prison.
Parole Officer Career History
The use of parole can be traced at least as far back as the 18th century, when England, awash in the social currents of the Enlightenment and Rationalism, began to cast off its reliance on punishment by death. Retribution as the primary legal goal was increasingly challenged by the idea that reform of prisoners was not only possible but also desirable. At first, this new concern took the form of a conditional pardon from a death sentence. Instead of being executed, felons were sent away to England’s foreign possessions, initially to the American colonies to fill their acute labor shortage. Although this practice actually began in the 1600s, it was not until the next century that a majority of condemned convicts were pardoned and transported across the ocean. After the American colonies gained independence in the late 18th century, England began to ship felons to Australia.
An important next step in the history of parole is the “ticket of leave,” first bestowed upon transported convicts in Australia. Taking various forms, this system eventually allowed a convict to be released from government labor but only after a designated number of years and only as a result of good conduct or behavior.
In the mid-19th century, the English Penal Servitude Act abolished the practice of transporting convicts to colonies and replaced it with the sentence of imprisonment. The use of the ticket of leave, however, was kept, and prisoners with good conduct could be freed after serving a designated part of the sentence. If another crime was committed, the prisoner would be required to complete the full term of the original sentence.
Although aspects of parole were tried as early as 1817 in New York state, a complete system of conditional and early release did not emerge in the United States until the 1870s. This program, begun in New York, included a method of grading prisoners, compulsory education, and supervision by volunteers called guardians, with whom the released prisoner was required to meet periodically. By 1916, every state and the District of Columbia had established a comparable program. This system of early release from prison came to be called parole—French for the word, promise, or speech— because prisoners were freed on their word, or parole, of honor.
Parole has been linked with the idea of rehabilitation since its beginning. Those on parole were given counseling and assistance in finding job training, education, and housing, but, unlike prisoners released without parole, they were also monitored. It was hoped that supervision, assistance, and the threat of being confined again would lessen the chance that released prisoners would commit another crime. Parole, however, has come to have other important functions. Prison overcrowding has commonly been solved by releasing inmates who seem least likely to return to crime. Inequities in sentencing have sometimes been corrected by granting early release to inmates with relatively long prison terms. Parole has also been used effectively as a means of disciplining disruptive prisoners while encouraging passive prisoners to good behavior. Without the incentive of parole, a prisoner would have to serve out the entire term of his or her sentence.
Parole Officer Job Description
Parole officers play an important role in protecting society from crime. By helping, guiding, and supervising parolees, parole officers can reduce the chance that these individuals will again break the law and thus return to prison.
The regulations concerning parole differ from state to state. In some places, prisoners are given what are called indeterminate, or variable, sentences; if convicted of robbery, for example, an offender may be sentenced to no less than three years in prison but no more than seven. In this case, the prisoner would become eligible for parole after three years. In other places, an offender is given a definite sentence, such as seven years, but according to law may be paroled after completing a certain percentage of the sentence. Particularly heinous crimes may be excluded from the parole system.
Not all prisoners eligible for parole are released from prison. Parole is generally granted for good behavior, and those who successfully complete a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program, finish their GED (general equivalency diploma), or show other signs that they will lead a productive, crime-free life are considered good candidates for parole. In a few cases, such as prison overcrowding, prisoners might be released before they are technically eligible. The parole decision is made by a parole board or other government oversight committee.
The work of a parole officer begins when a prisoner becomes eligible for parole. A parole officer working inside the correctional institution is given the job of writing a report on the prisoner. To help determine the risks involved in releasing the prisoner, the report might discuss the prisoner’s family background, lifestyle before entering prison, personality, skills, and job prospects, as well as the crime for which the prisoner was incarcerated and any other crimes committed. The parole board or other oversight body reviews the report; conducts interviews with the prisoner, the prisoner’s family, and others; and then decides whether the prisoner is suitable for release. In some cases, the parole officer might be called to testify or may help the prisoner prepare for the meeting with the parole board.
If released, the prisoner is assigned to another parole officer outside of the correctional institution. The initial meeting between the prisoner and this parole officer, however, may take place inside the prison, and it is there that the parole officer explains the legal conditions that the prisoner must follow. Beyond refraining from criminal activity, common conditions are attending school, performing community service, avoiding drug or alcohol abuse, not possessing a gun, and not associating with known criminals.
At this point, the parole officer tries not only to help the parolee find housing, employment, job training, or formal education but also to provide counseling, support, and advice. The parole officer may try to help by referring the parolee to other specialists, such as a psychologist or a drug rehabilitation counselor, or to a halfway house, where the parolee can live with other former prisoners and may be assisted by drug abuse counselors, psychologists, social workers, and other professionals. Parolees with financial problems may be referred to welfare agencies or social service organizations, and the parole officer may help arrange welfare or other public assistance. This is especially important for a parolee who has a family. The parole officer also sets up periodic meetings with the parolee.
An important part of the parole officer’s job may be to contact and talk with businesses that might employ former prisoners. The parole officer tries to alleviate the concerns of business leaders reluctant to hire parolees and to highlight the role of the business community in helping former prisoners begin a new life.
Much of the parole officer’s work is directed toward ensuring that the parolee is upholding the release agreement. The parole officer might interview the parolee’s teachers, employers, or family and might conduct other types of investigations. Records must be kept of the parolee’s employment or school status, finances, personal activities, and mental health. If the parolee does not follow the release agreement, the parole officer must begin proceedings for returning the parolee to a correctional institution. In some places, the parole officer is charged with arresting a parolee who is violating the agreement.
Parole officers often have a heavy caseload, and it is not unusual for 50 to 300 parolees to be assigned to a single parole officer. With so many parolees to monitor, little time may be spent on any single case. Some parole officers are helped by parole aides or parole officer trainees. A job with similar responsibilities is the probation officer, and some officers handle both parolees and those on probation. As the title suggests, probation officers work with offenders who are given probation, which is the conditional suspension of a prison sentence immediately after conviction. Probation is often given to first-time offenders. Like parolees, those on probation must follow strict guidelines, and failure to do so can result in incarceration. Probation officers, like parole officers, monitor the offenders; assist with finding employment, training, or education; make referrals to therapists and other specialists; help arrange public assistance; interview family, teachers, and employers; and provide advice and guidance. Those who work with children may be called juvenile court workers.
Parole Officer Career Requirements
If you are interested in this field, take a course load that provides adequate preparation for college studies. English, history, and the social sciences, as well as courses in civics, government, and psychology, are important subjects for high school students. Knowledge of a foreign language, particularly those spoken by larger immigrant and minority populations, will be especially helpful to a prospective parole officer. Some parole officer positions require fluency in specific foreign languages.
The minimum educational requirement for becoming a parole officer is usually a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, criminology, corrections, social work, or a related subject. A degree in public administration, law, sociology, or psychology may also be accepted. A master’s degree, as well as experience in social work or in a correctional institution, may be required for some positions.
To be a successful parole officer, you should be patient, have good communications skills, and the ability to work well with and motivate other people.
Exploring Parole Officer Career
The best way to gain exposure to the field is to volunteer for a rehabilitation center or other social service organization. Some agencies offer internship programs for students interested in the field. It may also be helpful to call a local government agency handling parole and to arrange an informational interview with a parole officer.
Most parole officers are employed by state or county correctional departments. Other parole officers are federal employees. Probation officers generally work for the courts. Halfway houses and work release centers also hire parole and probation officers. Approximately 93,000 workers are employed as probation officers and correctional treatment specialists in the United States.
After fulfilling the necessary requirements, many enter the field by directly contacting local civil service offices or county, state, or federal parole boards. In some areas, applicants are required to take a civil service examination. Job listings are also found in the placement offices of colleges and universities and in the classified section of newspapers. Contacts leading to employment are sometimes made during internships at a rehabilitation center or other organization. Greater opportunities exist for applicants with a master’s degree and for those who are willing to relocate. Many parole officers are former police and corrections officers who have gained additional training.
Some people enter the field as a parole officer trainee before assuming the title of parole officer. New employees are given on-the-job training to learn the specifics of their job.
There are a number of higher level positions. Beyond the job of parole officer, there are opportunities as supervisors, administrators, and department heads. Some parole officers are promoted to director of a specialized unit.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the median annual earnings for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists (the category under which parole officers are classified) were $40,210 in 2005. Salaries ranged from a low of less than $27,600 to $67,440 or more. Earnings vary by location and by level of government. Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists employed in state government earned a median salary of $44,590 in 2005, while those employed in local government earned $43,060. Educational level also affects salary. Parole officers who have advanced degrees generally earn more than those with only bachelor’s degrees.
Like most government workers, parole officers receive a good benefits package. Benefits include vacation days, health insurance, and a pension plan.
Parole officers usually work out of a clean, well-lighted office in a government building, courthouse, correctional institution, or social service agency. Those who work in the field must travel to various settings, such as private homes, businesses, or schools, in order to conduct interviews and investigations.
Parole officers typically have a 40-hour workweek, although overtime, as well as evening and weekend work, may be necessary. Because of potential emergencies, some may be on call 24 hours per day, seven days a week.
The job can bring a considerable amount of stress. Many parole officers have workloads that are too heavy, sometimes approaching 300 cases at once. Frustration over not having enough time to do an effective job is a common complaint. In addition, many parolees commit new crimes despite efforts by the parole officer to provide assistance. Others may be angry or violent and thus difficult to help or counsel. The job, in fact, can be dangerous. Despite the drawbacks, many people are attracted to the field and remain in it because they want to be challenged and because they know that their work has a positive impact on public safety.
Parole Officer Career Outlook
The employment outlook for parole officers is good through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The number of prisoners has increased dramatically during the past decade, and many will become eligible for parole. Overcrowding of prisons across the United States, combined with heightening concerns over the high cost of incarceration, have prompted the early release of many convicts who will require supervision. New programs replacing prison as a method of punishment and rehabilitation are being instituted in many states, and these programs will require additional parole officers. However, public outcry over perceived leniency toward convicted criminals, particularly repeat offenders, has created demand and even legislation for stiffer penalties and the withdrawal of the possibility of parole for many crimes. This development may ultimately decrease the demand for parole officers, as more and more criminals serve their full sentences.
For More Information:
- American Correctional Association (ACA)
- American Probation and Parole Association
- The Corrections Connection