Long after they have served substantial time in prison, been rehabilitated, and are ready to return to their communities, tens of thousands of people remain incarcerated because of the system’s failure to release them. Parole — which allows people to be released from prison before their maximum sentence release date — used to be an integral part of the justice system, rewarding people who turned their life around and encouraging prisons to provide rehabilitative services to ensure a safe and timely release. But parole and other release mechanisms — like medical, geriatric, or work release – are now under-utilized, broken, or non-existent.
In many states, the parole system reflexively denies release even to people who went to prison as teenagers. Thousands of people who were sentenced when they were young are finding that the promise of parole is an illusion, no matter what they do to prove their worthiness for release.
Some states have eliminated parole and other release mechanisms, requiring people in prison to serve a minimum 85 percent of their sentences before any possibility of release. In states that do have parole, parole boards operate in secrecy, with unclear rules and processes and with few required qualifications for board members. While the parole board acts like a court — often holding adversarial hearings and setting or extending the amount of time a person will spend in prison — these boards are not professional entities but political bodies, usually serving at the will of the governor.
Parole boards rarely release people, even when a person has support from prison staff, the community, and the judge who sentenced them. And when parole is denied, a person may wait more than a decade for another chance at freedom.