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Parole Officers

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.