Parole serves a very important role in the criminal justice system. Most inmates who have been sentenced to prison will be released at some point and return to the community. Criminal justice experts agree that it is better for society if most individuals are reintegrated into the community on a gradual basis and under parole supervision rather than being released without it. Eight months prior to an inmate’s minimum sentence date, the preparation of the case file begins for each individual. Until the maximum sentence date is reached and parole completion is achieved, interaction with the parole process can, and will, vary.
Parole is the release of an inmate from prison prior to his or her sentence’s maximum date, but after the minimum sentence date, to continue serving the balance of the sentence under supervision in the community. Probation is a sentence that does not include a period of incarceration; it is served in the community rather than jail. The sentencing judge always makes the decision regarding a person’s probation conditions and violations. However, a judge may request the Pennsylvania Parole Board (Board) to supervise certain county inmates with the judge retaining decision making power; however, these are known as “special probation” cases.
Parole is also different from a pardon or a commutation. The Governor may grant a pardon or commutation if the Board of Pardons, which is separate from the Board of Probation and Parole, recommends that one be granted.
The Board has paroling authority over sentences with a maximum date of two or more years that are served in state correctional institutions. A maximum sentence less than two years is a county sentence and county parole.
There is no right to parole under state or federal law. Parole decisions in Pennsylvania are not subject to judicial review unless the prisoner asserts a constitutional challenge to the denial of parole or seeks a writ of mandamus to compel the board to exercise its discretion. The Board does not have the authority to parole from sentences of life imprisonment or death.
Minimum and maximum sentence dates are calculated by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC). The minimum sentence date is a parole eligibility date, not a guaranteed release date. Contrary to popular misconception, Pennsylvania inmates are not required to serve 85% of their maximum sentence to be released on parole.
An order by a sentencing judge which grants or denies parole to a person serving a maximum sentence in excess of two years is a nullity. A sentencing judge may make recommendations as to the length of confinement and conditions of parole; however, these orders are advisory and are not binding on the Board.
An overview of the parole process is available for review. (pdf)