Parole Decision-Making: Myths and Realities

INTRODUCTION

Responsibility for federal corrections in Canada is shared between two agencies within the Department of Public Safety – the Parole Board of Canada (PBC or the Board) and the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). Both agencies operate under the same law – the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA).

CSC is responsible for managing penitentiaries which house offenders serving sentences of two years or more. CSC is also responsible for the delivery of programs, the preparation of cases and making recommendations to PBC for parole and for the supervision of offenders while they are in the community.

The Board is an administrative tribunal that has exclusive authority under the CCRA to grant, deny or revoke parole. Under certain circumstances, the Board may also order the detention of offenders subject to statutory release.

PBC has authority to make conditional release decisions for offenders in federal and territorial prisons. The Board also makes parole decisions for offenders serving sentences of less than two years in provinces that do not have their own parole boards (only the provinces of Quebec and Ontario have their own parole boards).

The PBC is also responsible for making decisions to order, refuse to order and revoke record suspensions under the Criminal Records Act (CRA).  The Board also makes recommendations for the exercise of clemency through the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.  

Conditional release is among the most controversial and misunderstood areas of the Canadian criminal justice system. By addressing and dispelling a number of widely-held misconceptions and popular myths about parole, this document is intended to help the reader better understand how parole works and how it contributes to the protection of society by facilitating as appropriate, the timely reintegration of offenders as law-abiding citizens.

Myths and Realities

1. Myth

Parole reduces the sentence imposed by the courts.

Reality: Parole does not reduce the sentence imposed by the courts.

Parole only affects the way in which a sentence will be served. It allows offenders to serve their sentences in the community under strict conditions of release and the supervision of a parole officer. If they abide by their conditions of release, they will remain under sentence in the community until their sentence is completed in full, or for life in the case of offenders serving life or indefinite sentences.

By law, federal offenders are normally eligible for full parole after serving one-third of their sentence, or seven years, whichever is less. Different eligibility rules apply for offenders serving life sentences for murder or indeterminate sentences. The fact that offenders are eligible for parole, however, does not mean parole will be granted. The protection of society is the overriding consideration in any release decision.

2. Myth

Parole is automatically granted when an inmate becomes eligible for parole consideration.

Reality: Parole is not automatically granted when inmates become eligible.

Because an offender is eligible for parole does not mean that it will be granted. In fact, PBC denies full parole to approximately 7 out of 10 offenders at their first parole review date.

The law gives PBC absolute discretion in decisions to grant or deny parole. In arriving at a decision, Board members consider the risk that the offender may present to society if released and determine if, and to what extent, that risk can be managed in the community. The protection of society is the overriding consideration in any release decision.

3. Myth

Statutory release is the same as parole.

Reality: Statutory release is not the same as parole.

Both statutory release and parole are forms of conditional release that require offenders to conform to conditions of release and CSC supervision. Statutory release, however, is a legal provision that automatically entitles most offenders, who have not been granted parole, to serve the final one-third of their sentence in the community. Offenders serving life and indeterminate sentences are not entitled to statutory release.

Parole, on the other hand, is subject to a discretionary decision by PBC, after a rigorous process of risk and needs assessment with the protection of society as the primary consideration.

In both cases, however, PBC has the power to set special conditions. Failure to abide by these conditions could mean the offender is returned to prison. (See Appendix 1 for Glossary)

4. Myth

There is no difference between probation and parole.

Reality: Probation and parole are completely different.

Probation is a sentence imposed by a judge, usually instead of, but sometimes in addition to, a term of imprisonment. It allows the person to live in the community under the supervision of a probation officer. Probation is exclusively under the jurisdiction of the provinces and is not used for federal offenders serving sentences of more than two years.

Parole is part of a sentence and may be granted only by a board of parole*. It always includes an initial period of imprisonment following which the offender may live in the community for the remainder of the sentence under the supervision of a CSC parole officer and under certain conditions. Failure to abide by these conditions could mean the offender is returned to prison.

* Ontario and Quebec have parole boards, which have jurisdiction only over those offenders serving sentences of less than two years in those provinces.

5. Myth

Offenders on parole and statutory release are free to live their lives as they please.

Reality: Offenders on parole and statutory release are not free to live their lives as they please.

All offenders on parole as well as on statutory release must remain within a specific area determined by their CSC parole supervisor. In other words, they are usually restricted to the area of residence and of work and they must remain in Canada.

They must keep the peace, be of good behaviour and obey the law, report to a CSC parole officer and the police as required, and keep the CSC parole officer informed of changes in residence or employment.

If necessary, PBC may impose special conditions of release such as: to reside in a halfway house; to abstain from alcohol and non-prescribed drugs; to avoid contact with their victims or children unless accompanied by an adult; and, to refrain from associations with people involved in criminal activity.

PBC has the power to revoke the release and order the offender's return to prison.

6. Myth

When making parole decisions the Board considers such things as prison overcrowding, quotas, the political climate and public outrage about certain high-profile offenders.

Reality: The first and foremost consideration of the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) in all its decisions is the safety of the public.

PBC is an independent administrative tribunal free from any political or bureaucratic interference or external pressure. Neither the Minister of Public Safety, nor the Commissioner of Corrections, nor the Chairperson of PBC can influence a Board member's vote.

Board members assess each case individually in terms of risk and public safety. The Board's assessment of the risk presented by an offender on parole is based on three major factors:

  1. criminal history;
  2. institutional behaviour and benefit from programs; and,
  3. release plan.

7. Myth

The Board grants parole to offenders who express remorse for the offences they have committed.

Reality: Whether or not offenders express remorse is only one of the many factors that the Board considers in assessing risk.

Of greater importance are whether  an offender understands his/her offence(s), the factors that contributed to their criminal behaviour, the progress they are able to demonstrate as a result of their participation in treatment programs, and the soundness of their release plan.

8. Myth

Most of the offenders released on parole are convicted of new crimes.

Reality: Most offenders released on parole successfully complete their sentences without committing new offences.

In 2013-2014, 99% of federal day parole periods, and 97% of federal full parole periods were successfully completed by offenders without re-offending.

More than 99 percent of parole periods (day and full) were successfully completed without a violent offence.

9. Myth

Society would be better protected if criminals remained in prison until the end of their sentence.

Reality: Evidence clearly shows that a gradual, controlled and supervised release is the most effective way of ensuring public safety.

Research over many years has shown that offenders are more likely to become productive law-abiding citizens when they have been returned to the community through conditional release (parole) than when they stayed in prison until the end of their sentence.

Over the long-term offence (for sentences completed between 1998/99 and 2002/03), offenders released at warrant expiry (end of sentence) were over four times more likely to be readmitted on a new federal sentence than offenders who completed their sentences on full parole.

When looking at the readmission rate for a violent offence, offenders released at warrant expiry (end of sentence) were ten times more likely to return to a federal institution because of a new violent offence than offenders who completed their sentences on full parole.

10. Myth

A life sentence in Canada means that offenders only have to serve 25 years before they are released.

Reality: A life sentence means life. Lifers will never again enjoy total freedom.

Offenders, convicted of first-degree murder, serve life as a minimum sentence with their first parole eligibility set by law at 25 years. For offenders convicted of second-degree murder, the judge may set parole eligibility at a point between 10 and 25 years.

Lifers can only be released from prison if granted parole by the Board. Unlike most inmates who are serving a sentence of fixed length (i.e. 2, 10, or 20 years) lifers are not entitled to statutory release. If granted parole they will remain subject to the conditions of parole and the supervision of a CSC parole officer for the rest of their lives. Parole may be revoked and offenders returned to prison at any time if they violate the conditions of parole or commit a new offence.

Not all lifers will be granted parole. Some may never be released on parole because they continue to represent too great a risk to re-offend.

11. Myth

PBC decisions are made in secret and are not available to the public.

Reality: Parole decisions are not secret.

Members of the public may apply to attend hearings as observers. More than 14,000 people, including victims and journalists, have attended parole hearings in the past five years.

PBC decisions, including reasons for the decisions, are also available to the public through the Board’s Decision Registry. Members of the public can obtain a copy of these decisions on written request. More than 30,000 parole decisions have been provided to the public in the past five years.

12. Myth

PBC can prevent any inmate from being released on statutory release by detaining them in prison until the end of their sentence.

Reality: Only certain offenders will be detained in prison until the end of their sentences.

Detention means that the offender will not be released on statutory release but will remain in prison.

The Board can order the detention of an offender if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the offender is likely to commit an offence involving death or serious physical or psychological harm, a sexual offence involving a child or a serious drug offence before the sentence ends. However, PBC may only review those cases that have been referred to it by CSC for a detention review.

By law, an offender who is ordered detained is entitled to a yearly review by PBC. The detention order will remain in force until the end of the sentence, unless the Board is satisfied that the offender no longer poses a risk to commit an offence involving death or serious physical or psychological harm, a sexual offence involving a child or a serious drug offence before the end of the sentence.

13. Myth

Victims do not have a role in the conditional release process and their views are not taken into account.

Reality: Victims or their families have a role in the conditional release process.

Victims have a voice at Parole Board hearings. They have the opportunity to present a prepared statement directly to the Board members about the continuing impact of the crime and any concerns they have for their safety or the safety of the community. A victim may also choose to present their statement through an audio or video recording.

PBC policy specifically states that if a release is being contemplated, information from victims must be considered. This includes requests from victims to impose release conditions deemed necessary for their protection.

The CCRA permits PBC and CSC officials to release certain prescribed information about offenders to their victims. Victims may remain in contact with PBC and CSC while the offender is under sentence and provide any additional information they believe should be considered. This information is used in decisions about an offender's institutional placement, programs and release. It may be a critical factor in those decisions where the physical security of the victim may be at risk.

Finally, the CCRA allows victims as well as other members of the public to attend and observe parole hearings and to request copies of the Board's written decisions from its Decision Registry.

Victims who cannot afford the costs of travel to attend parole hearings may apply to the Department of Justice for financial assistance to attend Board hearings of the offender who harmed them. For information and assistance you may call 1-866-544-1007.

Thousands of victims have taken advantage of these provisions since the CCRA came into force. Once established, there is usually continued contact between the victim and staff of both PBC and CSC. This contact has been made easier by providing toll-free telephone access to PBC offices. For questions relating to victim information, call the PBC 1-800 Victims Info line at 1-866-789-INFO (4636).

14. Myth

Board members are political patronage appointments.

Reality: Board members are not political patronage appointments.

The Government appoints only candidates who have successfully met all the selection and screening requirements of the Parole Board of Canada.

Vacancies are advertised in the Canada Gazette and any interested candidates may apply for the positions. Applicants are first screened against a set of criteria, which includes an assessment of their background and related experience. This may include criminology, law, journalism, law enforcement, education, business and community service. They must have a good understanding of the criminal justice system.

Candidates who meet these initial selection criteria must then undertake a written test and an in-depth interview. A list of qualified candidates is then submitted to the Minister of Public Safety Canada and appointments are made by the Government from this list of qualified individuals. The same selection process is used to select the Chairperson and Executive Vice-Chairperson of the Board.

Appendix 1 - Glossary

Administrative tribunal:
An independent decision-making body created by law that makes decisions free from outside influence which affect an individual's rights and liberties.
Clemency (or Royal Prerogative of Mercy):
An act of mercy which may be granted by Cabinet or the Governor General. It is only considered in very exceptional circumstances for deserving individuals who suffer excessive hardship as a result of a court imposed penalty, and where no other remedy exists under the law.
Day Parole:
A form of conditional release granted at the discretion of the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) for a period of up to six months to prepare the inmate for full parole or statutory release. The offender must return to a penitentiary, a provincial correctional facility or a halfway house each night.
Detention:
A decision by the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) ordering an offender to remain in custody until the end of sentence rather than being released on statutory release at the two-thirds point of a determinate sentence. An offender may be detained only if the case has been referred by Corrections Service Canada and if the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) is satisfied that the offender is likely to commit an offence causing serious harm, or death, prior to the expiry of the sentence.
Determinate sentence:
A sentence of fixed length imposed by the court. A determinate sentence has an expiry date at which time the offender is completely free.
Eligibility:
The date when an offender is entitled to be considered for some form of conditional release, such as temporary absence, work release, day parole, full parole or statutory release.
Full parole:
A form of conditional release granted at the discretion of the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) that allows an offender to live in the community, subject to conditions, providing him or her with an opportunity to demonstrate that he or she can be a law-abiding member of society.
Indeterminate sentence:
A life sentence for offences that may not otherwise carry a minimum sentence of life. By law, offenders designated by the court as "Dangerous Offenders" receive automatic indeterminate sentences. Although offenders serving an indeterminate sentence may not spend their entire lives in prison (i.e. they may eventually be paroled), they will remain under sentence, subject to control and supervision, for the rest of their lives. Parole eligibility in these cases is set by law at seven years.
Judicial Review:
A provision in the Criminal Code that allows an offender, who was convicted of murder and has spent at least 15 years of a life sentence in custody, to apply to the court to seek a reduction of the waiting period before being considered for parole.
Life sentence:
A life sentence means life. Offenders serving life sentences remain under sentence until the day they die. Although "lifers" may not spend their entire lives in custody (i.e. they may eventually be paroled), they remain subject to control and supervision for the rest of their lives. A first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic twenty-five year parole eligibility. For second-degree murder, the court may set the eligibility anywhere between 10 and 25 years.
Parole (day parole, full parole):
Parole may be granted after an offender has served part of their sentence in an institution, allowing the offender to live in the community under conditions and supervision for the remainder of the sentence. The decision to grant parole is discretionary and is the responsibility of a board of parole.
Probation:
A sentence imposed by a judge, either as an alternative to incarceration or following a sentence in an institution. It allows a person to live in the community subject to specific conditions and to the supervision of a probation officer under provincial authority.
Record Suspension:
A record suspension allows people who were convicted of a criminal offence, but have completed their sentence and demonstrated they are law-abiding citizens for a prescribed number of years, to have their criminal record kept separate and apart from other criminal records.
Revocation:
A decision made by the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) to terminate an offender's release because of a violation of a condition or conviction for a new offence. A decision to revoke a release results in the offender's return to custody.
Special conditions (applies to all types of release):
In addition to the conditions of release provided for by law, the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) may impose additional conditions (i.e. abstinence from all intoxicants) as considered appropriate to further reduce the risk and to prevent the offender from returning to criminal activity.
Statutory release:
By law, most offenders who are serving determinate sentences, and who have not been granted parole or had their parole revoked, must be released on statutory release automatically after having served two-thirds of their sentence. Statutory release does not require a decision by the Parole Board of Canada (see Detention). The Board may, however, impose special conditions.

Cat. No. JF92-45/2001

ISBN 0-662-65668-7