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Parole offers inmates hope for a smoother reintegration into society

But some say parole boards and officers have too much power, with too little oversight

In some states, after serving part of a prison sentence, inmates are summoned to answer questions from a parole board about their time served, future plans and behavior. The board then retreats to deliberate, a process that could take minutes or weeks. Some of the time, they agree to release prisoners early under specific conditions such as maintaining a job and not committing any more crimes.

Parole is the procedure for releasing inmates from prison under supervision before their maximum sentence has been satisfied. Its inception in the United States dates back to the early 19th century at a prison in Elmira, New York, where the superintendent enacted "indeterminate sentences." Indeterminate sentencing, as opposed to determinate sentencing, is an unfixed length of time a prisoner must serve.

Parole officers are in charge of assessing the risk inmates could pose to society, considering information such as pre-sentence investigation reports, policy reports, letters of support or opposition, statements from the victims or defendant, behavior in prison and prospects outside of prison.

Today, approximately 800,000 are out on parole.

According to a Pew Charitable Trusts analysis on New Jersey incarcerations, released parolee inmates are "less likely to be rearrested, reconvicted, and reincarcerated for new crimes than inmates who serve, or 'max out,' their full prison sentences and are released without supervision." According to the study, parolees are 36 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release.

Though recidivism, the relapse into crime, is reduced among parolees, some say that parole officers operate under different standards than a court of law, and the consequences can be devastating. Unlike prosecutors, parole officers don’t need to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and merely need a preponderance of evidence that someone could have committed a crime.

States that have abolished parole generally cite two main concerns: justice for the victims and the unreliability of the parole officers.

"Every state has a different calculation for when someone is eligible [for parole]," said Peggy McGarry, the Vera Institute of Justice's director for the Center on Sentencing and Corrections.

At least 16 states have abolished it.

For states that allow parole, the governor typically appoints the parole officers.

"They're the ones that make the decisions … so every state has a different calculation for when someone is eligible," McGarry told Al Jazeera.

Though one criticism leveled at parole boards is that too much power is held in their hands without much accountability, McGarry is quick to point out that observers may not have all the facts at their fingertips.

"Sometimes it could be because we don't know the whole story," said McGarry.

"Parole is a privilege, not a right. None of these decisions are simple. They're typically more complicated than you or I are able to see."

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