Over the past 40 years, millions of Americans have spent time in prison. Between 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local prisons, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 rural Indian prisons — plus America’s military prisons, civil commitment centers, state mental institutions and prison territory. The United States is currently imprisoning nearly 2 million people.
The current snapshot does not really reflect the impact of the criminal justice system on the lives of many Americans. In this country, an average of about 600,000 people go to prison every year. Additionally, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, people “go to prison more than 10 million times a year.”
“Some people have just been arrested and will be out on bail in hours or days, while many others are too poor to be released on bail and are stuck in jail awaiting trial. Only a minority – about 103,000 on any given day – are released Convicted, and typically serving a misdemeanor sentence of less than a year.
“At least a quarter of those who go to prison will be arrested again within the same year – often those with poverty, mental illness and substance use disorders whose problems only worsen with incarceration.”
With so many people incarcerated each year, you’d think the facilities are overcrowded, and you’d be right. Before the pandemic, nine state prison systems and BOPs were operating at 100% capacity or higher.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, over the past 40 years, “the number of people incarcerated in prisons and detention centers per capita in the United States has more than quadrupled.” Since 1970, the US prison population has grown by 700%. That’s a rate that far exceeds the overall U.S. population and crime rate.
I share all this data because I want to show how many people we imprison in this country and how easy it is to find yourself behind bars. Before I share with you how hard it is to leave. Today, I will answer a question: Can you get out of prison early?
In this blog post, I’ll cover the following topics:
- Difference between probation and parole
- Reasons why someone gets out of jail early
- What happens when you leave prison?
Difference between probation and parole
I’ll start this section by answering today’s question – yes, prisoners can get out early. However, how much prison time a prisoner must serve before leaving varies from state to state.
Prison inmates can be released early and granted parole, which essentially means you’re still under the custody of the Correctional Services Department, but you’re serving out your sentence in the free world.
The length of time you must serve in prison before you are eligible for parole depends on the state in which the inmate was convicted and the crime they committed.
For example, in the state of Missouri where I was incarcerated, there are laws regarding the amount of time a prisoner must serve before being eligible for parole. I was convicted of a Class B felony – possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute – and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Because this is a Class B felony, state law states that I must serve at least 25% of my sentence to be eligible for parole. Missouri is one of the few states that has a parole board, and I had to sit in front of them and answer questions before they released me.
The board gave me the earliest possible date, which meant I was released after serving 45 months, exactly 25% of my 15-year sentence. However, if I was convicted of a violent crime (such as a Class A felony), I would need to serve 80% of my sentence before I could be eligible for parole.
Lesser crimes, such as Class C or D felonies, require prisoners to serve 15 percent of their sentence before they are eligible for parole.
Again, this only applies to Missouri. Every state is different when it comes to how long a prisoner must serve before being eligible for parole. Just because a prisoner qualifies, doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing.
How a person performs in prison can determine whether they get the earliest release date, especially in states with parole boards.
As for probation, this is usually related to lower level crimes. Parole is available to people who have been convicted of a crime and have already served part of their sentence in prison, while probation is a community supervised option that does not require the convicted person to spend any time in jail or prison.
Probation is available for misdemeanors such as DUI (driving while intoxicated). If you are convicted of a DUI, you do not necessarily have to spend time in jail and be eligible for parole.
Instead, a judge may choose to suspend your jail term or jail sentence and order you to serve your sentence on probation. This means you have to live your life under the supervision of a probation officer and follow the rules like parole. If you get into trouble while on probation, it could lead to jail time or jail time.
Reasons why someone gets out of jail early
In addition to being eligible for parole, there are other reasons a prison inmate can be released early.
One is the advanced age or poor health of the prisoners. Elderly prisoners — or those with terminal illnesses — can apply for compassionate release, but getting approval is extremely difficult.
“There is no one system of compassionate release; instead, there are 52 variations on a theme,” says FAMM“Depending on the jurisdiction, relief takes different forms, from furlough to parole to commutation to serving time in prison. While very different, all compassionate release programs share one unfortunate characteristic—they are very rarely used.”
Another reason for early release is a national emergency, such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic. But again, such cases are very rare. Some states have released some prisoners during the recent pandemic, but the BOP has not backed down.
Other reasons for leaving prison early include successfully completing a resident drug and alcohol treatment program, earning good time credit through work and good behavior, or receiving an executive pardon from a U.S. governor or president.
What happens when you leave prison?
So, what will happen the day you get out of prison? When you go out, the jail will give you a prepaid debit card with at least $5 in it.
If you’ve been working, any unused wages are also charged to the debit card (if you’ve been earning minimum wage with work releases, that could mean hundreds or thousands of dollars). Any money sent to you by friends and family but not yet spent at the kiosk is also on the card.
Once you walk out the gate, you need to do two things. First, you must leave the venue immediately, which means you must have a personal ride arranged by a friend or family member, or the jail will give you a bus ticket.
Second, you must contact your parole officer within 24 hours and schedule an appointment. Other than that, you are alone. Unless you’re ordered to a halfway house. If that’s the case, you have to check in and follow their rules the day you get out.
I should point out that my experience out of prison was the exception, not the rule. I had a private tour with family members, a home set up for me, financial contributions from friends and family, and a college education that got me a job right away.
This is not the case for most released prisoners. If you don’t have any kind of support structure, it’s very difficult to succeed once you’re released. Think about it – what would you do if you suddenly got out of your car with a few dollars in your pocket and nowhere else to go?
How will you find a job? address? food to eat? The vast majority of employers wouldn’t even consider hiring a felon, and the same goes for landlords. No one wants to rent to a felon.
The challenges of a former prison inmate following his release are too numerous to list. This is why we have such a high rate of recidivism in this country.
What would you do if you came out of jail with five bucks in your pocket and nowhere to go? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022 Since you asked: Just how overcrowded were prisons before the pandemic, and at this time of social distancing, how overcrowded are they now? Probation and Parole: What's the Difference? https://www.mikeglaw.com/parole-vs-probation-what-is-the-difference/#:~:text=While%20parole%20is%20for%20people,to%20spend%20time%20in%20jail. Compassionate Release As COVID Cases Spike, Federal Bureau Of Prisons Is Not Releasing Eligible Inmates Early Release