Overview of the probation and parole system

Probation and parole refer to the community supervision of offenders. These opportunities are given by a judge, the Department of Corrections or the state Board of Pardons and Parole for offenders to return to their communities and live supervised, productive, law-abiding lives while holding jobs, paying taxes and supporting their families. There are three types of community supervision:

  • Parole – Offenders are granted early release from prison by the state Board of Pardons and Parole after serving time in a prison.
  • Conditional release – This refers to instances when an offender sentenced by a judge to the Department of Corrections is released into the community under the jurisdiction of the department and subject to its rules. This is not a parole and inmates are not eligible for parole consideration while they are on conditional release. Offenders who violate the conditions of their release and are subsequently sent to prison would become eligible for parole when prison records show they have served their minimum sentence.
  • Probation – Offenders are placed on probation by a district court judge after they plead guilty and receive a deferred or suspended sentence. Although supervised by the Department of Corrections, probationers remain under the legal jurisdiction of the sentencing judge.
    • Deferred sentence – A judge can order that a sentence be deferred (or postponed) for 1-6 years under certain conditions. If an offender successfully completes the deferred term, a district judge may allow him or her to change a plea of guilty to not guilty, and dismiss the case. If an offender violates the conditions of probation, a judge may impose a period of incarceration up to the maximum allowed by law and suspend any or all of the term.
    • Suspended sentence – Offenders given suspended sentences do not have the convictions removed from their records after completing their sentences.

Parole Eligibility – Offenders are eligible for parole from prison once they have completed a quarter of their sentence, provided there is no parole restriction. This time is calculated by the Department of Corrections and credit is given for all time served for the offense, including any jail time. The Board of Pardons and Parole decides whether an inmate is ready for release.

Purpose of probation – Probation is an opportunity for an offender to avoid a prison term, and perhaps even clear his or her record of a conviction in the case of a deferred sentence. Probation, like parole, comes with restrictions that many offenders find onerous and difficult to follow. Restrictions on travel, residence, employment, alcohol and weapons are ones that many offenders find more difficult than incarceration. Living in a community where many know of the offender, paying restitution and being supervised demand a high level of accountability.

Felony vs. misdemeanor convictions – People who have committed misdemeanors are not supervised by probation and parole. State law allows the Department of Corrections to supervise only those offenders convicted of felonies. The only exceptions are misdemeanor cases transferring from other states.

Private probation – Private, nonprofit organizations contract with cities and counties for supervision of offenders convicted in Justice or City courts.

Restrictions

Offenders on probation, parole or conditional release usually are prohibited from drinking alcohol, using drugs, possessing firearms and entering bars. A judge also can restrict who an offender associates with and where an offender can travel. Violent and sexual offenders must register their addresses with the state Justice Department. Restrictions can be imposed by a judge, the Board of Pardons and Parole or the Department of Corrections.

Can offenders on probation or parole… Answer
…vote? Yes
…hunt? No, because they are prohibited from possessing deadly weapons.
…work in bars? Generally, no. Most conditions of supervision include restrictions on frequenting such places. Suitable employment must be approved by an offender’s probation or parole officer.
…who were convicted of felony drunken driving legally operate a motor vehicle while under community supervision? Yes, but only with the permission of the offender’s probation or parole officer and that occurs rarely. Offenders must demonstrate they are a low risk to re-offend by living lawfully for two years and being actively involved in a self-help group before being considered.
…live or travel wherever they want? No. Residences must be approved by the supervising officer, and travel outside an assigned area can only occur when an officer has granted permission to the offender.

Search – Probation and parole officers may conduct a search without a warrant, as long as they have “reasonable suspicion” to believe that the offender has violated a law or a restriction on their community supervision.

Electronic monitoring – Offenders placed into the intensive supervision program (ISP) are required to have a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week agenda that is regulated by an ISP officer, who also can require an offender to wear an electronic monitoring device based on risk and need. It ensures an offender is in his or her home when not working, in treatment or providing community service. The department also utilizes electronic monitoring of alcohol use by DUI offenders.

State law requires use of global positioning system (GPS) monitoring devices for the highest-risk sex offenders.  See Montana Code Annotated 46-18-206 and 46-23-1010.

Violations and Revocation

If a probationer violates the terms and conditions of his or her sentence, a probation officer files a report of violation. A district judge holds a hearing to determine whether any of the alleged violations occurred. If the judge finds a violation, the court may revoke the suspended or deferred sentence and impose a sentence of imprisonment.

Offenders are held accountable for every violation in different ways. Probation and parole officers have a great deal of discretion in matters of violations. In making these decisions, officers generally weigh the severity of the case, the risk an offender presents and the need for public safety.

  • About 14 percent of probation or parole revocations occur due to an offender committing a new crime.
  • About 56 percent of men and 46 percent of women return to a corrections program within the first year.