Probation vs. Parole: What is the Difference?

Probation and parole are often used interchangeably, but they represent very different parts of a legal sentence. If an offender is conditionally released from incarceration, it’s important for the former prisoner to know his or her legal status. 

Definition of Probation

Probation is the release of someone convicted of a crime back into the community instead of going to or remaining in jail. After the court convicts someone of a crime, it can choose the type of criminal sentence (within the legal system’s guidelines) that may or may not include jail time. After serving the sentence, the system can release an individual on probation. Also, the offender can receive probation instead of serving jail time.

Definition of Parole

Parole is a conditional release of a prisoner already serving a sentence in prison. A public official referred to as a parole officer supervises any individual released on parole. As a condition of the release, the former prisoner has to abide by certain rules. Failure to do so constitutes a violation. Violations mean the parole officer can return the offender to prison.

Parole and probation law

Parole and probation law in different states are each subject to the court system and the legal rules at the state and federal levels.

An individual, who committed crimes and after being found guilty and gained  release on parole or probation is still subject to certain behavioral qualifications. This means the judge will dictate what rules the offender has to follow to avoid jail time or additional jail time.

For example: In some states a lawyer can argue that a person with a minor charge like a marijuana drug conviction should receive a probationary period instead of jail time because they never committed a crime before. The idea here is that everybody makes mistakes so people should have a second chance to stay on the right side of the law.

The court will typically require an individual released on parole to:

  1.  get and maintain a job
  2.  avoid any drugs or alcohol
  3.  avoid victims of their previous crimes
  4.  avoid committing any new crimes
  5.  regularly check in with the parole officer

Parole and probation violation

Now, if a minor in the example above receives probation, they must follow certain rules the judge determines. The minor may have to check in with a probation officer regularly, pass regular drug tests every few weeks, and complete community service hours for a certain length of time. Any failure to do these items means that instead of being allowed to remain out and about on probation, they have to serve the rest of their sentence in jail.

In other situations, an individual already incarcerated in jail or prison might shorten the length of their incarceration if that person has an attorney who argues that the prison sentence or jail sentence should be reduced because of good behavior. In these situations, the attorney and the person convicted will attend legal hearings, and a judge can decide that because of this good behavior and causing no problems so far during the sentence, the sentencing process will change so they receive release on probation or parole.

In cases like these, there are still strict rules regarding the offender’s activities once they are released on probation or parole. For people released from prison, failure to check in with a parole officer typically constitutes a violation of parole and can mean that the individual has to serve the rest of the sentence in prison. If a prisoner on parole breaks a law (mostly felonies, sometimes a misdemeanor), the court will likely reject parole and send the offender back to prison. If, however, they run a stop sign and get a citation for that, chances are a judge won’t send them back to prison for something so simple, but the judge still will require regular adherence to the rest of their conditions for release.

Similarities Between Probation and Parole

There are many similarities between probation and parole.

1. Not a Right

Neither prisoners nor probationers have the right for a release from incarceration or punishment. Instead, a parole board, in the case of prisoners, will determine whether they should be released and what conditions should be placed upon them just the same as a judge will determine whether an individual convicted of a misdemeanor should be released or given probation instead of jail time.

2. Can Be Revoked

A judge can revoke both probation and parole at any time. In fact, for lesser misdemeanor infractions, a judge will tell individuals like the minor convicted of a drug charge in the example above that they are on probation instead of jail time, but any violation of their probation will result in them serving out the remainder of their sentence in jail. Similarly, a prisoner who applies for parole, and the parole board grants it, can have it revoked if they violate the conditions of their release.

3. Is Conditional

Probation and parole are conditional. An individual granted probation instead of jail time doesn’t get away scot-free. They still have to abide by the conditions of their probation, which can include certain community service activities or a certain number of hours volunteering, no convictions of another crime within a certain time frame, and checking in with a probation officer, or passing drug tests.

4. Can Serve as Part of a Sentence

Probation and parole can both serve as part of a sentence, meaning someone could go to jail and midway through a jail sentence be granted probation for the remainder of their sentence. Similarly, someone who is a prisoner in a federal or state prison can be granted parole for the duration of their sentence.

Key Differences Between Probation and Parole

There are a couple of differences between probation and parole:

1. When It Is Given

The key difference between probation and parole is that parole applies to prisoners convicted of a felony and sent to a federal or state prison. Probation applies to individuals convicted of smaller crimes like misdemeanors and not yet sent to city or county jails.

For example, John is convicted of a crime. The judge gives him probation for two years instead of eight months in jail. If he violates his probation, he gets sent to jail for his full eight-month sentence.

Let’s look at another example:

John is convicted of a crime. He is sentenced to eight months in county jail. He behaves well for the first three months of his sentencing.. His good behavior results in his conditional release on probation for the remainder of his eight-month sentence assuming he abides by the conditions of his release.

2. Who Gives It

The other difference is who gives each. A judge hands down probation at the trial. A parole board, on the other hand, grants parole after the offender  serves some or most of a sentence. 

Final Thoughts

The difference between parole and probation is simply when it is granted and to what types of convicted criminals. There are more similarities between the two than there are differences but understanding parole and probation and knowing what the difference is can help non-legal people, such as family, better understand situations where each is granted. 

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