Parole Historical Roots

Excerpted from the first part of a two-part article titled, Parole and Prisoner Reentry in the United States, by Joan Petersilia, PH.D. Part one of this article appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Perspectives. The second part of this article appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of Perspectives.

To read the entire two part article,
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Parole comes from the French word parole, referring to "word" as in giving one's word of honor or promise. It has come to mean an inmate's promise to conduct him or herself in a law-abiding manner and according to certain rules in exchange for release. In penal philosophy, parole is part of the general 19th-century trend in criminology from punishment to reformation. Chief credit for developing the early parole system is usually given to Alexander Maconochie, who was in charge of the English penal colony at Norfolk Island, 1,000 miles off the coast of Australia, and to Sir Walter Crofton, who directed Ireland's prisons (Cromwell and del Carmen 1999).

Maconochie criticized definite prison terms and developed a system of rewards for good conduct, labor and study. Through a classification procedure he called the mark system, prisoners could progress through stages of increasing responsibility and ultimately gain freedom. In 1840, he was given an opportunity to apply these principles as superintendent of the Norfolk Island penal settlement in the South Pacific. Under his direction, task accomplishment, not time served, was the criterion for release. Marks of commendation were given to prisoners who performed their tasks well, and they were released from the penal colony as they demonstrated willingness to accept society's rules. Returning to England in 1844 to campaign for penal reform, Maconochie tried to implement his reforms when he was appointed governor of the new Birmingham Prison in 1849. However, he was unable to institute his reforms there because he was dismissed from his position in 1851 on the grounds that his methods were too lenient (Clear and Cole 1997).

Walter Crofton attempted to implement Maconichie's mark system when he became the administrator of the Irish Prison System in 1854. Crofton felt that prison programs should be directed more toward reformation, and that "tickets-of-leave" should be awarded to prisoners who had shown definitive achievement and positive attitude change. After a period of strict imprisonment, Crofton began transferring offenders to "intermediate prisons" where they could accumulate marks based on work performance, behavior and educational improvement. Eventually they would be given tickets-of-leave and released on parole supervision. Parolees were required to submit monthly reports to the police, and a police inspector helped them find jobs and generally oversaw their activities. The concepts of intermediate prisons, assistance and supervision after release were Crofton's contributions to the modern system of parole (Clear and Cole 1997).

By 1865, American penal reformers were well aware of the reforms achieved in the European prison systems, particularly in the Irish system. At the Cincinnati meeting of the National Prison Association in 1870, a paper by Crofton was read, and specific references to the Irish system were incorporated into the Declaration of Principles, along with other such reforms as indeterminate sentencing and classification for release based on a mark system. Because of Crofton's experiment, many Americans referred to parole as the Irish system (Walker 1998).

Zebulon Brockway, a Michigan penologist, is given credit for implementing the first parole system in the U.S. He proposed a two-pronged strategy for managing prison populations and preparing inmates for release: indeterminate sentencing coupled with parole supervision. He was given a chance to put his proposal into practice in 1876 when he was appointed superintendent at a new youth reformatory, the Elmira Reformatory in New York. He instituted a system of indeterminacy and parole release, and is commonly credited as the father of both in the United States. His ideas reflected the tenor of the times - a belief that criminals could be reformed, and that every prisoner's treatment should be individualized.

On being admitted to Elmira, each inmate (males between the ages of sixteen and thirty) was placed in the second grade of classification. Six months of good conduct meant promotion to the first grade - misbehavior could result in being placed in the third grade, from which the inmate would have to work his way back up. Continued good behavior in the first grade resulted in release. Paroled inmates remained under the jurisdiction of authorities for an additional six months, during which the parolee was required to report on the first day of every month to his appointed volunteer guardian (from which parole officers evolved) and provide an account of his situation and conduct (Abadinsky 1997). Written reports became required and were submitted to the institute after being signed by the parolee's employer and guardian.

Indeterminate sentencing and parole spread rapidly through the United States. In 1907, New York became the first state to formally adopt all the components of a parole system: indeterminate sentences, a system for granting release, post-release supervision and specific criteria for parole violation. By 1927, only three states (Florida, Mississippi and Virginia) were without a parole system, and by 1942, all states and the federal government had such systems (Clear and Cole 1997).


Abadinsky, Howard. 1997. Probation and Parole. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Simon & Shuster.

Clear, Todd, and George Cole. 1997. American Corrections. Belmont, Ca.: Wadsworth Publishing.

Cromwell, Paul F., and Rolando del Carmen. 1999. Community Based Corrections. Belmont, Ca.: West/Wadsworth.

Walker, Samuel. 1998. A History of American Criminal Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.