Last updated 3 November 2016     This chapter is currently under review.

A federal prisoner is someone convicted of an offence against Commonwealth law for example social security offences, importation of drugs and terrorism offences. As far as general prison conditions are concerned, they are treated the same way as state prisoners, subject to the same discipline and the same amenities because they are held in state prisons.

Release on recognizance

A federal offender can be ordered to be released on a recognizance or good behaviour bond (i.e. a document signed by the prisoner, specifying conditions to be observed following release) after serving a specified part of their sentence.

Federal prisoners serving terms of three years or less can only be released on recognizance, not on parole. Breaches of recognizance are dealt with by the courts.


Where a federal prisoner is sentenced to one or more sentences of imprisonment that total three years or longer, including a life sentence, the sentencing court can fix a non-parole period.

If there is a non-parole period, the prisoners may be released on parole by the federal Attorney-General or their delegate when the non-parole period expires. Early release of up to 30 days prior can be applied for by writing to the federal Attorney-General and setting out the reasons for early release (e.g. if the timing of their release affects their ability to obtain work, study or maintain family relations).

Federal prisoners serving more than three years can apply for parole to the federal Attorney-General. This process is not automatic.

If the Attorney-General is going to refuse parole to a person serving more than three years, the decision must be made at least three months before the expiration of the non-parole period, and the person must be advised of the decision within 14 days of it being made.

A joint prisoner (a prisoner serving sentences for both state and federal offences) cannot be released on federal parole if they are still serving a state sentence.

Release on licence

Federal release on licence is similar to exceptional circumstances parole described above (see s 19AP Crimes Act 1914 (Cth)).

Exceptional circumstances granted by the federal Attorney-General may include extensive cooperation with law enforcement agencies or development of a serious medical condition which cannot be adequately treated within the prison system. Excellent conduct, remorse or contrition, or family hardship (unless of an extreme kind) would not normally constitute exceptional circumstances.

The person seeking release on license or their representative should write to the federal Attorney-General’s Department setting out the grounds of the application. The Attorney-General may refuse to consider further applications made within one year of the original application, unless they include new material.

Revocation of parole orders and licences

If a person on parole or licence is convicted of a further offence and is sentenced to more than three months imprisonment, it will result in the automatic revocation of the parole order or licence.

The Attorney-General may also revoke a parole order or licence at any time if there has been a breach of a condition of the order or licence. The Attorney-General must give 14 days written notice of the alleged breach to the offender and give them the opportunity to show cause as to why the order or licence should not be revoked. In some circumstances (e.g. the whereabouts of the parolee is unknown) the notice does not have to be given.

Escape from custody

Where a person is in custody, whether on remand or sentenced for a federal offence only, and they escape from prison, the escapee must be charged under federal and not state law. If they are in custody for both state and federal offences (joint prisoners), they can be charged under either state or federal law but not both.

Administrative review

Decisions made by the federal Attorney-General or their delegates are subject to the administrative review procedures in the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 (Cth). The Commonwealth Ombudsman has power to investigate such decisions and relevant documents are subject to release through the Commonwealth freedom of information legislation.