When does a prisoner qualify for parole?

“With a number of well-known persons recently having been convicted and then allowed out on parole a short time after being convicted, it does feel that somehow our justice system does not always apply the same standards to celebrities. How does parole work and when are you eligible for parole?”

Parole can be described as “an internationally accepted mechanism that allows for the conditional release of offenders from a correctional centre into the community prior to the expiration of their entire sentences of imprisonment, as imposed by a court of law.”

Parole is therefore a conditional release of a sentenced prisoner and is a privilege and not a right. In South Africa, parole is governed by the Correctional Services Act of 1998, read with provisions of the Criminal Procedure Act of 1977. My feedback will focus on parole considerations for prisoners serving a minimum sentence of 2 years up to life imprisonment. Medical parole, as a separate form of parole, will be disregarded herein.

For purposes of parole, prisoners fall into two categories:

  Prisoners serving determined sentences 
Prisoners serving undetermined sentences

Prisoners who are serving determined sentences can further be divided into two categories namely: 

Sentenced prisoners without a non-parole period – no prescribed period that the offender must spend in prison before parole is considered – are eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence.
Sentenced prisoners with a non-parole period – serving a sentence to which a period for not being eligible for parole has been attached – can only be considered for parole after serving the non-parole period or half of the entire sentence depending on which one is the lowest. The non-parole period also cannot be more than two-thirds of the entire sentence or 25 years, whichever period is shorter. 

Should a prisoner believe that he is eligible for parole, the prisoner must apply to the Correctional Supervision and Parole Board (“Board”) to be placed on parole. The Board, based on appropriate reports and recommendations from correctional officers, will consider and decide whether the prisoner should be granted parole. Should the Board dismiss the application, the prisoner or an interested party may request that the Review Board overturn the decision of the Board. Our courts may also be approached should a prisoner feel aggrieved by the decision of a Board or Review Board to deny him parole. Our courts may not order the Board to grant parole but may evaluate whether the decision to deny parole was properly considered and refer the matter back for reconsideration.

Prisoners serving sentences for serious offences, or for which mandatory minimum sentences are prescribed by legislation, have determinable sentences, and the nature and seriousness of these offences result in these sentences being treated as similar to a sentence of life imprisonment and only a court can determine whether such prisoners may be placed on parole. These prisoners must serve at least four-fifths of their entire sentence or 25 years whichever period is the shorter, for them to be considered for parole, although a court can be approached to order that a prisoner be placed on parole after serving two-thirds of the entire sentence. The maximum amount of years that a prisoner can serve however without being considered for parole is 25 years. 

Lastly one should note that although prisoners have been granted parole it does not mean that the period of their sentence is over. Should a paroled prisoner break his parole conditions, parole may be revoked and the prisoner will have to serve the remainder of his sentence. Parole is a complex aspect of our corrections system and many considerations come into play when parole is being considered. These considerations are not always available to the public to help them understand why parole may have been granted.

August 9, 2017
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