What is the difference between probation and parole?

The difference between probation and parole is that probation occurs before and often instead of a prison sentence or jail time in the criminal justice system. Parole is an early release from prison. Instead of a probation officer to monitor the progress of a probationer, a parolee reports to a parole officer. The parole officer explains the rules and expectations to the parolee and monitors their progress. To get more legal help, use our free tool below.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 14, 2021

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Probation and parole are two alternatives to incarceration. However, probation occurs prior to and often instead of jail or prison time, while parole follows release from prison. In both probation and parole, the party is supervised and expected to follow certain rules and guidelines. These guidelines are called conditions of parole, or probation conditions. In both circumstances, the party is expected to submit to warrantless searches, without probable cause. If they violate their probation or parole, they can go back to prison or jail.

What are the conditions of probation?

Even though the person is not subject to a jail sentence, they may be subject to many of the same conditions of jail time including curfew rules, rehab programs, community service, wearing electronic monitoring, and more. They are often subject to monthly or more frequent drug and alcohol tests by urinalysis. While on probation, a probationer can be ordered to pay a fine, court costs, restitution, and any court-appointed attorney fees.

The length of time that a person is on probation can range from one year to up to ten years. Many states will cap the length of time that a person can remain on probation as an alternative to jail.

The probation officer monitors offenders and submits regular reports to the judge, advising them of any failure to abide by probation terms of probation. This is done for public safety without overtaxing the prison system. If there is a violation of probation, the judge can order a capias to be issued requiring a defendant to be returned to court for final sentencing. After sentencing, a defendant is ordered to serve actual time in prison. If the defendant had a suspended prison term, he is usually sent straight to prison to serve his time.

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What is parole?

Parole refers to the period of time after a defendant is released from prison. For many crimes, a parole board meets to evaluate each case and determine if the prisoner can become a parolee. A defendant on parole will face many of the same controls or safeguards as probation. Conditions of parole may include requiring a defendant to stay in a halfway house or other approved housing and continuing with payments on fines and other financial obligations.

Instead of a probation officer, a defendant on parole usually reports to a parole officer. The parole officer explains the rules of parole and expectations of a party on parole to the defendant and monitors their progress. As with regular probation, if a defendant fails to comply with his parole conditions, then the parole officer could file a report with the parole board. The parole board may, based on the defendant’s behavior while on parole, order the defendant returned to prison to finish the remainder of their criminal sentence.

What Are the Differences Between Parole and Probation?

The functions of the formal probation and parole process tend to be very similar. Both are concerned with a defendant breaking the bad habits or behaviors that caused them to have a criminal record. Even though both probation and parole have a strong rehabilitation component, each process has the additional goal of protecting the public from criminal offenders.

Parole has the additional function of trying to reintegrate a defendant into society. Depending on the nature of a defendant’s offense, the conditions of probation or parole can be amended or changed. For example, if a defendant is convicted of molesting a child, they may be ordered to stay away from parks and playgrounds where children frequent. A parole violation could mean an immediate return for more time in jail to serve their original sentence or an extended period.

The conditions of both parole and probation must somehow relate to a defendant’s rehabilitation or underlying offense, but they can vary. A defendant on probation is usually still subject to the jurisdiction of the court. This means the judge has the right to amend or modify a defendant’s conditions of probation at any point. Any changes usually come in the form of an order that modifies a defendant’s conditions.

Parole changes are not usually the result of a court order. Instead, parole conditions are usually set by the parole board, and they are for all defendants. For example, all defendants are banned from committing new offenses. Changes in conditions or procedures related to those conditions do not come from the original judge, but instead, come from the parole officer or parole board. Instead of a criminal proceeding, these changes are referred to as administrative proceedings. This is an important distinction because a defendant is afforded more state and constitutional protections in a criminal case than an administrative hearing. A probation violation is also more standardized.

What Are the Consequences of a Parole Violation?

If a defendant fails to comply with his parole conditions, they could be brought before the parole board to decide on appropriate consequences. The Board can revoke a defendant’s parole and order the defendant returned to prison to finish his initial sentence in jail or prison. The Board can also reinstate a defendant on parole and then allow him to continue on parole. A defendant doesn’t have the option of a jury trial. Unlike probation, the cap on parole tends to follow the sentence. For example, if a defendant is sentenced to thirty years in prison, then a defendant can be on and off parole for up to thirty years.

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What Departments Handle Parole and Probation?

A defendant on probation or parole should maintain a good relationship with his probation or parole officer. Some states will divide their functions into separate divisions including the Parole Department and the Probation Department. Other states will combine the functions into one office. In Louisiana, for example, a defendant could be on probation, get revoked, go to prison, get released, and potentially have the same person who managed his probation managing his parole. On the other hand, in the state of Texas, the agencies are split and a defendant will have one officer while on probation, and report to a completely different officer for parole.

How Can I Protect My Rights?

Most people are very concerned about having good legal representation when they are first facing a criminal charge. This is a valid concern. However, most states provide several state and constitutional protections to ensure that a defendant receives due process. Defendants should use as much diligence in procuring a good criminal defense attorney to assist with parole issues as they did with the initial crime. Part of the reason for this is that constitutional procedures and protections tend to be much lower in parole revocation situations because they are more administrative in nature. When there are fewer built-in protections, a defendant needs external protections the most.

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