Explainer: Inside Look at How Parole Really Works in New Jersey

Stereotypes or half-truths gleaned from TV and movies don’t accurately represent the complex workings of the state’s parole system

Over the past two years, New Jersey lawmakers have pushed and Gov. Phil Murphy has signed several measures that make changes to parole eligibility. Some of these bills and laws have cast the system in a negative light, implying that officials look for reasons to deny inmates parole or return parolees to jail.

That’s a view members of the public may share; unless they or a family member have been involved with the system, most people only know about parole from movies or television.

New Jersey State Parole Board chairman Samuel Plumeri Jr. said the stereotypes do not paint an accurate portrait of how the system actually works. The number of people on parole in New Jersey has remained between 15,000 and 16,000 a year on average since 2008, even as the prison population continues to decline. The proportion of parole revocations issued has been hovering around 10% since 2014; it had been close to a third of all parolees at the start of the millennium.

Parole is not guaranteed at the moment; parole board members use their judgement and there can be disagreements over their decisions. Starting next February, however, the new Earn Your Way Out law will provide a presumption of parole for many inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses

There are some specific procedures followed in New Jersey. This is how the process works:

Who’s eligible for parole?

Inmates generally become eligible for parole after serving a third of their sentences, unless a judge specified a period of parole ineligibility. In those cases, the person must serve that period. The parole board posts weekly notices of when inmates are eligible for parole.

When an inmate becomes eligible, the board’s Division of Release reviews their history and prepares a report. Staff looks at an inmate’s criminal history and actions while incarcerated — including behavior,  job performance and classes taken. There is also a risk assessment and needs assessment.

What happens at a parole hearing?

The full board consists of 15 members, including the chairman, and three alternates. All are nominated to six-year terms by the governor and must be confirmed by the Senate. Full members receive a salary of about $116,000, while alternates receive a per-diem amount when they work.

Typically, two members form a panel; panels hear an average of 10 or 12 cases a day inside the prisons. The members have copies of the reports on all those eligible. They hear from those seeking parole. They may also hear from victims who were affected by individuals’ crimes.

There are some criteria board members must use in making decisions. For those who committed crimes on or after August 19, 1997, state law requires that an adult inmate be paroled unless the panel determines the individual did not cooperate in their own rehabilitation or if there is a reasonable expectation the inmate will violate conditions of parole if released. For earlier crimes, the law holds that an inmate be paroled unless the panel determines that the person is likely to commit a new crime if released.

There is a “human factor,” Plumeri said, and ultimately the members make judgement calls based on all the evidence they have and the inmate’s remarks.

If the board denies parole, it determines when an inmate will again be eligible for consideration. The individual may also appeal the denial to the parole board’s appeals unit.

If the panel grants parole, it can also require special conditions in addition to typical requirements that must be met while an individual is on parole. The latter include regularly reporting to a parole officer, notifying the parole officer of changes in employment and not committing any new crimes. Additional conditions may include finding a job, passing random drug tests and participating in counseling. A release date is set; if an inmate commits any infractions while awaiting release, that could jeopardize their release.

Release and re-entry

The parole board works with an individual to develop a plan for re-entry into society. Staff considers each offender’s criminal history, educational or vocational needs, mental health or substance-abuse issues and other factors and draws up a case-plan agreement that includes short-term and long-term goals. The parolee must sign the plan.

Plans are geared to specific needs of individuals. Some parolees may be assigned to a residential program called Stages to Enhance Parolee Success (STEPS) as a way to transition back into the community or may be required to report daily to a community resource center until they find a job or successfully learn anger management, parenting or money management skills. There are also different substance-abuse programs in which a person may participate. The state has 200 contracted programs available. People can also get help from nonprofits like the NJ Reentry Corp.

Plumeri said parole officers function as much as social workers as they do enforcers and do not immediately look to revoke parole for minor violations. For instance, the residential STEPS program is available as an alternative to re-incarceration.

Release or revocation?

Once a person successfully completes the proscribed term of parole, he is released.

But those who persistently fail to comply with their parole conditions or commit a serious infraction — including committing a new offense — are subject to revocation of parole.

When this happens, the parole officer arrests the individual, who will be held and taken to the state Department of Corrections’ central-processing facility in Ewing for a hearing.  Parole staff will interview the individual, who is entitled to legal representation, and assign a hearing officer. The individual is entitled to two hearings. The first is a probable-cause hearing to determine whether the offender “seriously and/or persistently violated a condition of supervision.” (A parolee can waive the first hearing.) If they have violated a condition of supervision, a revocation hearing is held to decide if parole should be revoked. Different standards are applied, depending on whether the person violated conditions or committed a new crime. The hearing officer completes a report and a parole-board panel makes the final decision on whether to revoke parole.

If the board allows an individual to remain on parole, it could impose additional supervision conditions. If it revokes parole, it determines when the person again becomes eligible for parole.

Last year, the board revoked parole for 1,603 individuals, a little more than 10% of the 15,535 parolees.

What NJ gets right

Officials say that, overall, New Jersey is doing a lot right, pointing to the state’s comparatively low recidivism rate of about 30%. Between 2007 and 2013, recidivism in the state dropped by 19%.

Still, further reforms set to take effect next year are likely to add to the parole caseloads, with as many as  1,500 nonviolent offenders expected to be released each year. The parole board is among the groups working on rules for carrying out the new law.