Setting Parole Conditions to Achieve Public Safety

Background and Context

The Role of Paroling Authorities

There are nearly 853,900 adults on parole in the United States; 744,700 of those are state parolees (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012).2   United States parole Boards responsible for the oversight of these cases vary widely on many dimensions, including their level and type of discretion with respect to release, their case review and hearing practices, and the degree to which they oversee post-release supervision.  Virtually all paroling authorities, however, share the weighty responsibility for setting conditions of release.  Discretionary parole release is, as confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, a privilege and not a right, and the release of an individual on parole has always been accompanied by certain conditions that the parolee must agree to abide by after release in order to remain at liberty in the community.  The setting of these conditions is a critical parole Board function, as conditions provide a framework through which expectations of the offender are communicated, and through which officers have traditionally supervised parolees.  In recent decades, the correctional literature has evolved to a point where much more is known about how to supervise offenders in a way that promotes success rather than encourages failure.  In response to this evidence, and in an era of increasingly scarce resources, parole Boards across the country have expressed interest in learning more about how to set parole conditions in a way that encourages offenders to succeed and reduces risk to the community. 

Over the years, the use of conditions has been influenced by the historical shifts in correctional philosophies from rehabilitation in the early 20th century, to retribution in the 1970's and 80's, to risk management more recently.  Today, the entire criminal justice and corrections community has begun to focus more directly upon reduction of risk, recidivism and re-victimization—and the body of research that has identified effective correctional practices to achieve those goals.  It is only logical—and indeed imperative—to explore the research (evidence) and how it can be applied to the setting of conditions.  This Action Guide can be used as a resource by parole Boards who wish to explore how their authority to set conditions can be most effectively used in enhancing public safety, in reducing the risk of recidivism, and in using public resources wisely.

Defining Terms

Terminology regarding parole conditions typically includes two categories:  1) those conditions referred to as general, or standard; and 2) those conditions referred to as special. Terms may vary somewhat, but general or standard conditions are those that are routinely imposed on all those under parole supervision, and must be met by everyone who is released on parole regardless of their individual circumstances.  Special conditions represent additional requirements that must be met by particular offenders related to issues or concerns specific to these offenders.  Many jurisdictions, for instance, have a set of special conditions that they routinely impose on individuals convicted of sex crimes.  Or there may be practices in place to impose conditions that require treatment because of the nature of the crime.  The authority and/or mandate for imposing general or special conditions may be found in statute or regulations/rules with the force of law.  They may also stem from policies, procedures, or practice implemented through the exercise of the parole Board's discretion in such matters.         

Traditional Approach to Setting Conditions

The reasons for imposing conditions are numerous.  Some conditions may relate to specific, immediate public safety concerns (e.g., do not possess a weapon), others may involve efforts to address criminogenic risks or needs (e.g., a requirement to attend treatment or services), some may attempt to limit an offender's actions or access (e.g., do not visit certain locations, or have contact with victims), or to assure their availability for supervision (e.g., required to report and not to leave certain geographic areas without permission), while others may be imposed for purposes such as reparation, (e.g., required to pay funds to a victim compensation fund, or perform community service).  Failure to meet imposed conditions can result in any response up to, and including, the ultimate consequence of return to prison. 

Failure may also result in the imposition of other responses short of re-incarceration.  These responses are, increasingly, building upon our growing knowledge of how to encourage positive behavior and respond in risk-reducing ways to violations.  And the setting of conditions, of course, sets the framework for this approach to managing the behavior of individuals on parole supervision.  Thus, it is important for the releasing authority to have a clear understanding of the purpose and intended goal of all imposed conditions—and then to fashion their policies and practices to achieve those goals.

2 This data is current as of the end of 2011, the most recent year for which these statistics are available. 

< Goals of this Guide, and How to Use It

Understanding the Evidence and Its Implications
for Setting Parole Conditions