A primer on the parole process

Mary McCaffity

Deputy Director, Victim Services Division, Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Before offenders are released to supervision in Texas, they undergo careful review which, for those not familiar with the process, might be difficult to understand. This article seeks to correct common misconceptions about the parole review process and provide accurate information about crime victims’ rights, post-conviction.

Who is responsible for parole activities?
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) is responsible for considering eligible offenders for release, either to parole or discretionary mandatory supervision (more on those in a minute), the imposition of appropriate conditions of release, and the determination of revocation or other appropriate sanctions for offenders who violate the terms of release. BPP members are appointed by the governor for six-year terms, pending Texas Senate approval. Parole commissioners assist the board with parole and revocation decisions. The 14 commissioners are appointed by the BPP chair.
    The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) Parole Division is responsible for pre-release planning and for supervising parolees and mandatory supervision offenders after they are released to the community.

What’s the difference between parole and mandatory supervision?
See the sidebar below for a comparison of these two forms of release.
    Under the law in effect until August 31, 1996, release to mandatory supervision was automatic, with no board decision involved. All offenders serving time for offenses committed prior to August 31, 1996, and classified as eligible for mandatory supervision must be released on their projected release date when calendar time served and accrued “good time” add up to equal their entire sentence. “Calendar time” is the actual time an offender has served, and “good time” is time credited for good behavior and participation in work and rehabilitation programs while incarcerated. For many offenders, “good time” credits may be added to “calendar time” when calculating their eligibility for parole or mandatory supervision.
    The 74th Legislature gave the BPP authority to review scheduled mandatory supervision releases for offenders with offenses committed on or after September 1, 1996. The Board may deny mandatory supervision releases on a case-by-case basis if the panel determines that an offender’s good conduct time does not accurately reflect the potential for rehabilitation and that the offender’s release would endanger the public.

SIDEBAR: Parole vs. Mandatory supervision release

Parole
• Offenders can be eligible for both parole and discretionary mandatory review.
• Parole is discretionary and always involves a decision by the BPP. Parole is a privilege an offender has to earn—it is not a right.
• Offenders are paroled only if they receive approval from the Board and have served enough of their sentence to be eligible by law for parole.
• Paroled offenders serve the remainder of their sentence in the community under supervision.
• Like those released on mandatory supervision, parolees are subject to conditions of release as determined by the BPP.
• Paroled offenders must report to parole officers and are subject to arrest and re-incarceration if they violate conditions of release.

Mandatory supervision release
• Offenders can be eligible for both parole and discretionary mandatory review.
• As the name says, mandatory supervision release is mandatory once certain offenders accrue enough combined “calendar time” and “good time” to qualify by law for release prior to completion of their entire sentence.
• Offenders not eligible for mandatory supervision are those serving a sentence for a violent offense listed in §508.149(a) of the Texas Government Code.
• Those released are obligated to complete the remaining portion of their sentences under parole supervision in the community.
• Like parolees, those released on mandatory supervision are subject to conditions of release as determined by the BPP.
• Those released must report to parole officers and are subject to arrest and re-incarceration if they violate conditions of release.

How does an offender become eligible for release to supervision?
Consideration for discretionary mandatory supervision is determined by both the offense and when the estimate of good time plus calendar time equals the offender’s complete sentence. This estimated date becomes the offender’s “projected release date.” In discretionary mandatory cases, the BPP may choose to release or not release prior to the projected release date.
    Parole eligibility dates are calculated by the TDCJ Correctional Institutions Division’s Classification and Records Office. The percentage of a sentence that must be served to reach eligibility is determined by statute and the nature of the offense. The parole eligibility date may change based on good conduct time. A chart of parole and mandatory supervision eligibility is included in the Parole in Texas publication located on the Board website at www.tdcj.texas.gov/bpp/publications/PIT_ 2017_Eng.pdf (starting on page 50). The chart, which is also available in the PDF below, is a great resource for anyone trying to learn how the date and type of offense and the laws in effect at the time will affect parole eligibility.
    An affirmative finding of the use of a deadly weapon is an important factor affecting an offender’s eligibility for parole. Offenders with an affirmative finding on the judgment and sentence are not eligible for release on parole until the actual calendar time served, without consideration of good conduct time, equals one-half of the sentence imposed or 30 calendar years, whichever is less. Under no circumstances will an offender with a deadly weapon finding be eligible for release on parole in less than two calendar years.1
    For example, let’s say offender John Doe committed a first-degree aggravated assault on May 1, 2017, and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
•    Offender Doe will not be eligible for mandatory supervision because commission of that offense on that date is not eligible under law.2
•    If his judgment and sentence does not include an affirmative deadly weapon finding, he will be eligible for parole when his calendar time plus his good time equal one-fourth of his sentence or 15 years, whichever is less. Because he has a 40-year sentence, Doe will be eligible when calendar time (including credit for time served in county jail) plus good time equals 10 years (one-fourth of 40 years).
•    However, if there is an affirmative finding of a deadly weapon, he will not be eligible for parole until he serves half of his sentence or a maximum of 30 years, regardless of good time. With a 40-year sentence, he will be eligible after serving 20 years’ flat time (including time served in county jail), which is half of 40.

How does the parole review process work?
The review process begins several months before an offender’s parole eligibility date. Information on the case is gathered and provided to the BPP for consideration. The panel is composed of three voters with at least one board member and any combination of board members and parole commissioners. The offender may or may not be interviewed by one of the panel members before the final panel vote, and two of the three panelists must vote in favor of parole before it can be granted. Certain cases, as defined in Government Code §§508.046 and 508.141, may be paroled only upon a two-thirds majority vote of the entire seven-member Board.
    When voting cases, the parole panel considers factors which include:
•    seriousness of the offense(s);
•    letters of support and protest;
•    sentence length and the amount of time served;
•    criminal history and other arrests, probation, parole;
•    number of prison incarcerations;
•    juvenile history;
•    institutional adjustment; and
•    the offender’s age.

How often are offenders reviewed?
Offenders, except those convicted of an offense under Government Code §508.149(a), receive an annual review. If the offender is denied parole—also called a “set-off”—the board will set the next review date. The review process will begin again a few months prior to the next review date.

What are the voting options for the BPP?
Approval and denial vote options are listed in the sidebar below.

SIDEBAR: Parole Board voting options
The voting panels of the Board do not vote just “yes” or “no” on parole cases; there are a number of voting options for parole approval. The Board may withdraw an approval vote at any time if new information is received.

Approval votes
FI-1 (Further Investigation): Release the offender when eligible.
FI-2: Release on a specified future date.
FI-3R: Transfer to a TDCJ rehabilitation program and release to parole only after program completion and not earlier than three months from specified date. The required TDCJ program may be CHANGES/Lifeskills, Voyager, Segovia Pre-Release Center (Segovia PRC), or any other approved tier program.
FI-4R: Transfer to a TDCJ rehabilitation program and release to parole only after completion of the Sex Offender Education Program (SOEP), and not earlier than four months from specified date.
FI-5: Transfer to an In-Prison Therapeutic Community Program (IPTC), with release to an aftercare component.
FI-6: Transfer to a DWI Program and release to continuum of care program.
FI-6R: Transfer to a TDCJ rehabilitation program and release to parole only after program completion and no earlier than six months from specified date. The required TDCJ program may be the Pre-Release Therapeutic Community (PRTC), Pre-Release Substance Abuse Program (PRSAP), In-Prison Therapeutic Community Program (IPTC), or any other approved tier program.
FI-7R: Transfer to a TDCJ rehabilitation program and release to parole only after completion of the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) program, and not earlier than seven months from the specified date.
FI-9R: Transfer to a TDCJ rehabilitation program and release to parole only after completion of the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP-9), and not earlier than nine months from specified date.
FI-18R: Transfer to a TDCJ rehabilitation treatment program and release to parole only after completion of either the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP-18), or the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), and no earlier than 18 months from the specified date.
CU-FI: Designates the date an offender serving consecutive sentences would have been eligible for parole if he had been convicted of a single sentence.
RMS: Release to mandatory supervision.

Denial votes
NR: (Next Review): Deny parole and set time for next parole consideration. State law requires annual reviews except for certain violent or sexual cases.
SA: (Serve All): Deny parole with no regular subsequent review, requiring offender to serve the balance of the sentence.
CU-NR: Deny favorable action and set next review in consecutive sentence case.
CU-SA: Require offender to serve all of current sentence in consecutive sentence case.
DMS: Deny Mandatory Supervision (and sets next review date) because offender’s accrued good conduct time does not accurately reflect potential for rehabilitation, and offender’s release would endanger the public.

Endnote

1  Parole in Texas: Answers to Common Questions, produced by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Parole Division, available at http://www.tdcj.texas.gov/bpp/publications/PIT_2017_Eng.pdf.

What rights do crime victims have during the parole review process?
The rights of crime victims, including the statutory definition of a crime victim, can be found in the Code of Criminal Procedure Chapter 56 and Government Code Chapter 508. These rights include:
•    receiving information about the parole process and parole proceedings,
•    an opportunity to provide information to the Board in writing and in person,
•    notification of the defendant’s release, and
•    the ability to complete and have the Victim Impact Statement considered by the Board before an offender is released on parole.
    It is extremely important to note that a victim must register with TDCJ Victim Services to receive notifications and information, as well as to request a meeting with the Board during the review process. Victims may do so by calling 800/848-4284 or emailing [email protected]

Can prosecutors provide information during parole review?
Prosecutors and other trial officials will be notified when offenders convicted in their county enter the review process.3 Information can be provided to the parole panel by email at [email protected] or mail at Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, P.O. Box 13401, Austin, TX 78711-3401.

What are some common misconceptions about parole?
The TDCJ Victim Services Division is a point of contact and works with victims during the parole review process. Below are some common misconceptions relayed to VSD from crime victims.

“I was told he would have to serve 90 percent of his time before he would be released on parole!”
In fact, the state legislature sets the requirements for parole eligibility. At this time, there are no statutes in place that would require an offender to serve 90 percent of his sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

“They told me he would never see the light of day! They said he would die in prison!”
There are actually very few offenses that do not include eventual parole eligibility.

“No one told me he would be considered for parole so soon after the trial.”
It is important for all involved parties to understand the long-term, post-conviction effects of decisions made during plea bargaining and trial.

What happens to victims during the parole review process?
Every victim goes through a unique experience during an offender’s review. For example, it may have been a very long (or very short) time since the offender was convicted and sentenced. Receiving notice that the offender is under consideration for release from prison might trigger stress in some victims, and notifications may coincide with the anniversary of the crime or a loved one’s birth date. Some victims find it difficult to write about the impact of the crime on their lives but may feel obligated to do so. Others experience pain but are grateful for the opportunity to have their voices heard.
    In the event of a one-year set-off, an offender could re-enter the review process only a few months after the last board vote. This means that victims participating in the parole review process will receive another notification and begin their protesting all over again (if they choose to exercise that right). Often victims feel that protesting an offender’s parole requires their full and constant attention and they never get a break.
    Victims may choose to exercise their right to provide information to the Board during review. For some this choice is an easy one, and for others it is very difficult. Each victim is unique, and their motivations for participating in the review process vary greatly. We must not assume to understand or know what a victim will think or feel about actions taken in the criminal justice system.
    The TDCJ Victim Services Division works to inform victims about their rights and helps them exercise those rights. We are available to explain the process, accompany victims to Board meetings, assist with writing protest letters, or listen to their story. In addition, we can assist you as criminal justice professionals in increasing understanding of the parole process and serving victims of crime. We encourage you to refer victims to our office to verify their registration for notification and to provide additional services.
    The Board also has a Victim Liaison program to assist victims during the parole review process. Elizabeth Hamilton is the Victim Liaison at the Board and can be reached at 512/406-5833 or [email protected]
    Victims have choices and it is important that they understand their options to make the best choice for their situation. Together we can ensure victims are well-informed about what happens post-conviction and their opportunities to be heard.

Endnotes

1  Tex. Gov’t Code §508.145.

2  Tex. Gov’t Code §508.149.

3  Tex. Gov’t Code §508.115.