Probation and Parole: Definitions, Similarities, & Differences
If you’ve been convicted of a crime, you’ll naturally have concerns about the possible restrictions to your freedom.
Fortunately, not every conviction results in incarceration. Both probation and parole are potential alternatives to spending time behind bars.
Although the terms probation and parole are often used interchangeably, they’re different situations, each with their own rules and processes.
Here’s a rundown of their similarities, differences, and everything else you need to know.
Probation and Parole: A Primer
Parole and probation both play essential roles in the criminal justice system.
What is Probation?
Probation is an alternative to spending time in jail or prison.
The offender is allowed to live in their community under certain conditions.
During probation, the individual is still legally considered in custody.
Conditions of probation vary, depending on the severity of the offense, any prior convictions, and other factors.
In most cases, probationers must adhere to a strict schedule, avoid specific locations and situations, and avoid alcohol and drugs.
Probation can be either supervised or unsupervised.
With supervision, the offender will report to a probation officer at various times, such as weekly or even daily.
In some states, certain misdemeanors potentially qualify for unsupervised probation.
Probation is granted and supervised by the court.
It’s a type of sentencing granted after a conviction.
Approximately four million people are currently on adult probation on either the state or federal level throughout the US.
What is Parole?
Parole is an early, conditional release from prison or jail.
The offender is let out before their full sentence is complete.
They’re still considered to be in custody, but the remainder of their sentence is served in the community instead of behind bars.
Like probationers, parolees must follow strict rules, which will vary by individual and the nature of their offense.
Also, like probation, the person on parole is under the supervision of authority, in this case, a parole officer.
Failure to follow all relevant restrictions can result in a return to incarceration.
Parole typically doesn’t involve the courts.
Instead, it’s set by the parole board.
Interactions between the parole board and the offender are considered administrative proceedings.
Why is this important? In a criminal proceeding, a person has more constitutional protections than they do in an administrative one.
For example, individuals on parole can have their property searched at any time without requiring a search warrant.
What is the Role of Probation and Parole?
Both probation and parole have the same general goals. They’re intended to:
- Rehabilitate criminals
- Protect community safety against repeat offenses
- Control costs associated with mass incarceration
Although they have the same general goals, each type of supervision plays a slightly different role for offenders.
What is the Role of Probation?
Probation officers make sure the offender clearly understands and follows the rules.
They also help the offender with treatment options, such as assisting them to find drug and alcohol counseling.
Because the court runs probation, probation violations are reported back to the sentencing judge.
What is the Role of Parole?
Parole has the same general goals of preventing recidivism and protecting the public.
However, in many cases, the parolee will need additional help re-entering society.
For example, former inmates often have a harder time finding a job and a place to live.
Why are Probation and Parole Important?
Probation and parole have several benefits both for the individual and society at large.
First, supervision (the term for both parole and probation) is significantly cheaper than incarceration.
According to the Administrative Office of the US Courts, it costs approximately eight times as much to keep someone in prison or jail compared to supervision.
Additionally, as a correctional treatment specialist, the supervisor provides resources to help the offender lead a healthy, law-abiding life.
In the case of probation, the individual can continue working at their job, raising their kids, and otherwise have fewer disruptions in their daily life.
With parole, the person also has more time to organize their life on the outside.
Types of Probation and Parole
Probation and parole aren’t “one size fits all” solutions.
Restrictions and other rules are put in place based on many factors, such as the individual’s history, type of offense committed, and risk to community safety.
Types of Probation
There are four types of adult probation:
- Supervised – The offender has regular, direct contact with a probation officer
- Unsupervised – The offender doesn’t communicate with a probation officer directly but still must comply with court-ordered restrictions.
- Community Supervision – The individual is required to stay in their home and usually has an ankle monitor. Community supervision provides some of the most intense supervision of all probation types.
- Crime-Specific – Restrictions are based on the nature of the crime. For instance, the offender might be prohibited from going to bars or posting on the internet.
Probation restrictions are often heavily based on the specifics of the offense and offender.
Types of Parole
There are three types of parole for adult offenders:
- Mandatory – Incarcerated prisoners who exhibit good behavior are rewarded with reduced time off their sentence. When they reach the end of their sentence (including reductions), they’re eligible for parole.
- Discretionary – The prisoner can appear before the parole board, which has complete discretion as to whether or not parole is granted.
- Expiatory – A prisoner who has completed their sentence, even without time off for good behavior, is granted this type of parole.
Unlike probation, some conditions of parole occur regardless of the type of crime that occurred.
What is the Difference Between Probation and Parole?
Arguably the biggest difference between the two is that, with probation, you can avoid spending any time behind bars, but with parole, you’ll be incarcerated for at least a portion of your sentence.
Difference Between Supervision
Parole officers supervise parolees, while probation officers supervise people on probation.
Parole officers and probation officers have completely separate jobs; no one officer supervises both types of offenders.
The level of supervision for parole is typically more intense than probation, although that’s often due to the often higher level of severity of the crime committed.
A person sentenced to probation often committed a much less serious offense than someone sentenced to prison.
Difference Between Parole and Probation Officer
The Department of Corrections oversees all aspects of parole, including release, parole violations, and other aspects.
Parole officers and the parole board operate their own system separate from the courts.
Courts run the probation system.
The probation officer works as an agent of the state, county, or other relevant court systems.
Any violations are reported back directly to the judge.
How are Probation and Parole Similar?
Probation and parole share many similarities.
First, they allow you to remain in the community instead of behind bars.
In many cases, the offender can live at home and continue working at their current job.
While parole and probation have similar freedoms, they also have similar restrictions.
The person on either will need to adhere to a variety of rules.
Each situation is different, but both parole and probation typically have the following conditions:
1. Travel Restrictions
You might only be allowed to go to certain locations, such as home or work.
In some cases, the court or parole board will mandate the use of an ankle monitor.
Along those same lines, restrictions on travel during certain times are also common.
Many parolees and probationers are required to stay at home during the night.
3. Financial Repercussions
The offender will likely have to pay fees related to their parole/probation as well as other financial penalties.
Also, the offender might have to pay court-ordered restitution.
4. Drug and Alcohol Restrictions
In many cases, the individual will be required to avoid alcohol and drugs.
They might be subject to drug testing, too.
Most parolees and people on probation are required to have a job, except in some situations where the person is sentenced to home confinement (sometimes called community supervision).
Attending regular counseling sessions is another common requirement.
Types can include substance abuse and alcohol counseling, anger management therapy, parenting classes, and more.
In both systems, compliance with the rules is monitored by a regulatory authority.
With probation, the offender reports to a probation officer, who acts on behalf of the courts.
With parole, the parolee has a parole officer who works for the Department of Corrections on either the state or local level.
Probation and Parole Fees
Both probation and parole often require the payment of fees.
State laws vary considerably on how much is required and when it’s due.
For example, Idaho residents on probation and parole pay $60 in fees each month, although some states have higher or lower fees.
The conditions of your release will also influence the fees required.
If you’re required to wear any type of electronic monitoring system, you’ll likely have to pay rental fees for the equipment.
Note that you don’t have to pay the probation or parole officer directly.
Practically all court and Department of Correction systems allow you to pay via an online portal.
Which is Better: Probation or Parole?
When faced with the choice, most people prefer probation instead of parole.
With probation, you can avoid prison or jail time entirely.
Of course, that’s not to take away the benefits of parole.
If you’re in prison, getting released early on parole is certainly a huge relief!
From a societal and financial standpoint, probation helps save money while ideally rehabilitating someone who doesn’t pose an ongoing threat to the community.
Parole saves money, too, although the person is incarcerated for some portion of their sentence.
Frequently Asked Questions
Let’s take a look at some of the most common questions about supervised release.
How can you have your probation instated with your parole?
A person can be on probation and parole at the same time.
Generally, the most serious punishment for an infraction prevails.
However, if a probation violation occurs due to a court-mandated condition of your parole, most judges will reinstate your probation.
Can someone on parole live with someone on probation?
While the courts and parole board set specifics, in most cases, people under supervision are prohibited from living with someone else also on supervision.
Understanding the differences between parole and probation is key to succeeding during the programs, and avoiding any violations that could result in harsher punishments within the criminal justice system, including prison or jail time.
Both parole and probation present an opportunity to put a mistake behind you and return to a normal, healthy life.
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