In California, prison inmates serving sentences for serious or violent felonies get placed on parole upon their release. Parole is a supervisory program where “parolees” abide by various terms for a set number of years as a condition of remaining out of custody.
For the most part, California has a mandatory parole system. This means that unless public safety presents an overriding concern, inmates who are eligible for parole must be paroled once they serve their sentence. Eligible parolees are supposed to be paroled unless they present an overriding public safety risk.
In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys discuss:
- 1. When do I get paroled?
- 2. Can I get early parole?
- 3. What types of parole are there?
- 4. What are the terms I have to follow?
- 5. How long does it last?
- 6. Do I get a parole officer?
- 7. What if I am accused of violating parole?
- 8. What if I was sentenced to life without parole?
- 9. Can I get community supervision instead of parole?
- 10. Can I get parole if I am elderly?
- 11. Can I get parole if I have a mental disorder?
- 12. How is parole different from probation?
- 13. Can I be paroled if I am in federal prison?
- Additional resources
1. When do I get paroled?
If you were sentenced to a specific number of years in California State Prison – called a determinate sentence – then you should be automatically released on parole as soon as you finish serving your sentence.
If you were given a sentencing range such as 15 years to life – called an indeterminate sentence – then parole eligibility begins once you serve the sentence’s lower range. (If you were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole with no lower range, then the minimum eligible parole date is typically seven years into your sentence.)
Once you are eligible for parole on an indeterminate sentence, you go in front of the Parole Board for a “parole suitability hearing” – commonly called a “lifer hearing” – where the Board determines if releasing you would pose too great of a public safety risk. Note that if you are classified as a sexually violent predator (SVP), the Board holds a special SVP parole hearing to determine if you are ready to reenter society.
Sometimes inmates get paroled at their first lifer hearing, while others have repeated lifer hearings and never get released on parole. Therefore, it is important to have a criminal defense attorney with you advocating on your behalf and presenting all the available evidence of your rehabilitation and compliance.1
2. Can I get early parole?
In California, you can earn “good time credit” (sometimes referred to as “work time credit”) while in prison to push up your parole eligibility date.
Inmates traditionally had to serve at least two-thirds of their determinate sentence before being paroled. Though currently, the state is allowing “day for day credit” so you may be eligible for parole after serving only half your determinate sentence.2
However, you must serve at least 85% of your determinate sentence before getting paroled if your conviction was for a violent felony.3 Also, you are not eligible for good time credit at all if you:
- are serving time for murder, or
- have been previously convicted and incarcerated for two or more felonies.4
See our related article on how Proposition 57 increased the opportunities for early parole.
3. What types of parole are there?
California has six levels of parole supervision:
- intensive re-entry — enhanced supervision immediately upon your re-release into the community.
- regular re-entry — employment and housing services immediately upon your re-release into the community, but for a shorter period of time.
- specialized caseloads — provides intensive services to you if you are deemed “high risk.”
- case management supervision — a lower-level of supervision once you demonstrated you successfully re-integrated into the community.
- electronic supervision — a 24-hour electronic monitoring system.
- subsistence and personal care — transition services such as parenting education, cash, clothing, and transportation services upon community re-entry.
Your level of supervision may change depending on your needs and community safety.5
4. What are the terms I have to follow?
Common conditions parolees in California have to follow are:
- warrantless searches with or without cause,
- living within designated county limits,
- registering with local authorities (this applies in cases involving sex offenders, arson, and certain drug crimes), and
- checking in with your parole officer.6
Note that you do not have to report to a parole officer if you are placed on the non-revocable parole program. However, you would still be subject to warrantless searches.7
Depending on what you were convicted of, there may also be specialized parole conditions such as:
- not possessing weapons,
- not accessing the internet, and/or
- not associating with gang members.8
Refusing to sign and acknowledge your parole conditions will cause the Board to revoke its offer of parole and incarcerate you for an additional six months.9
5. How long does it last?
Average parole terms in California are three years, although some can run as long as five or ten years depending on the crime you were convicted of. If you are released after a murder conviction, parole typically lasts for life unless an exception applies.10
6. Do I get a parole officer?
Yes. Parole officers (also called parole agents) are California Department of Corrections employees tasked with supervising you during your parole.
Parole agents report directly to the Board of Parole Hearings. They prepare plans and recommendations for you prior to release. They also help you arrange for services such as
- medical care and counseling services, and
- social activities.
7. What if I am accused of violating parole?
If you are accused of violating parole, your parole officer investigates and makes a recommendation to the Parole Board either to
- allow you to remain on parole, or
- revoke your parole and re-incarcerate you.
The court is then allowed to keep you in custody while you await your parole revocation hearing. This hearing is like a mini-trial where the state presents evidence of your alleged violations, and you (or your attorney) are allowed to defend yourself.
Parole revocation hearings are more difficult for you to win than criminal trials. In criminal trials, the state has the burden to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; whereas in parole revocation hearings, the state has to prove your violation only by a preponderance of the evidence – which is a much lower standard.11
If you are placed in the “non-revocable parole program,” violating a parole term will not threaten your parole status, and you will not have to attend a hearing. The only time you risk going back to prison is if you get arrested and convicted for an entirely new crime.12
Learn more about parole revocation hearings in California.
8. What if I was sentenced to life without parole?
If you are sentenced to life in California State Prison without the possibility of parole, there are three ways you may be able to get released:
Learn more in our article, Five crimes that will get you life without parole in California.
9. Can I get community supervision instead of parole?
You must go on parole after serving a California State Prison sentence for a serious felony, a violent felony, or a sex crime where you are deemed-high risk.
Community supervision – formally called post-release community supervision (PRCS) – is available only for low-level felony offenders through a government measure called realignment. PRCS is shorter and less intensive than parole, though you can be rearrested for violating its terms.
10. Can I get parole if I am elderly?
You may be eligible for early parole from California State Prison if you are at least 60 years old, have been incarcerated for 25 consecutive years, and meet certain other requirements. You can request elderly parole at a regularly scheduled parole hearing or by asking for an advance parole hearing once you become eligible for the program.
Learn more about California’s Elderly Parole Program.
11. Can I get parole if I have a mental disorder?
If you are in California State Prison and suffer from a mental illness, you could be eligible for mentally disordered offender (MDO) status: This permits you to be paroled as long as you continue to receive mental health monitoring.
Learn more about California parole laws for mentally disordered offenders.
12. How is parole different from probation?
You go on parole after you serve your prison sentence. In contrast, probation reduces or eliminates the time you have to spend in custody at all.
Also, parole applies only to certain felony cases. In contrast, probation is available in most cases including misdemeanors.
Parole and probation are similar in that both require you to abide by various terms, and you risk being remanded into custody for violating them.
Learn more in our related article, Probation v. Parole – How are they different?
13. Can I get parole if I am in federal prison?
No, there is no parole in federal prison, though there is a supervised release program governed by federal sentencing guidelines.
Learn more about federal prison vs state prison.
For more information, refer to the following:
- Parolee Handbook – Official guide by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for how to successfully complete parole.
- Parole Hearing Information – Instructions for crime victims on how to participate in parole hearings.
- Parole Suitability Hearing Results – Results of past lifer hearings going back one year.
- Is California parole program worth $100 million a year? – Cal Matters article on the pros and cons of parole.
- California’s Changing Parole Population – Article by the Public Policy Institute of California.
- California Penal Code 3000. In re Dannenberg (2005) 34 Cal.4th 1061.
- California Penal Code 2933.
- California Penal Code 2933.1.
- California Penal Code 2933.2. California Penal Code 187.
- Parole Services, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
- In re Hudson (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1. California Penal Code 3067 PC. California Penal Code 3003 PC. California Penal Code 290 PC
- Non‑Revocable Parole Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) Sheet, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
- See In re Hudson at 9, endnote 6.
- California Penal Code 3060.5.
- California Penal Code 3000. California Penal Code 3000.1.
- People v. Schaffer (Ca.App. 2020) .
- Endnote 7.