A convicted criminal who is sentenced to serve time in a jail or prison may be released or "paroled" before her entire sentence has elapsed. A person who is paroled is called a "parolee." Parole is a method that allows inmates to be released as a reward for good behavior during incarceration and as a way to reduce overcrowding in prisons. However, although an inmate may no longer be in prison, she is still in the legal custody of the state and remains under supervision for the remainder of her sentence.

State prison systems have parole boards, made up of individuals who determine if an eligible inmate should be granted parole. Eligibility is typically based on a formula calculated on the total sentence. For instance, an inmate may be eligible for parole when 30 percent of her sentence has been served. A woman sentenced to 20 years in prison could be considered for parole, based on that formula, after 6 years of incarceration. Additionally, an offender who has served a set amount time (20 years for instance) may be eligible for parole even if sentenced to life in prison.

If the inmate is eligible, the board considers a series of factors in making its determination on whether to grant parole. These factors include: the seriousness of the crime, an inmate's behavior in prison, participation in educational and vocational programs and the availability of family or friends with whom to live after release. Inmates who are denied parole are generally eligible for reconsideration within a year or two.

SIDEBAR: Persons sentenced to death are never eligible for parole. Also, laws may provide for the imposition of a sentence "without possibility of parole," meaning that an inmate must serve the entire length of the sentence.

Victims of crimes are notified when an offender is up for parole. The victim is permitted to contact the parole board to describe the continuing impact of the crime on his life and protest the offender's release. Victims may also be allowed to speak at parole hearings. Likewise, an offender's friends and family are permitted to offer support statements in favor of parole and assure board members that the parolee will have assistance if released.

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