Probation vs. Parole: What’s The Difference?

Probation vs. Parole: What’s The Difference?

The criminal justice system in the United States can be confusing for a lot of us, to say the least. There is a flurry of technical terms that you will encounter, and I don’t blame you if you get them mixed up. Two things that people often use interchangeably are probation and parole, thinking they’re the same thing. The significant similarities between the two are that they both start with the letter “P,” and they’re both ways of living under a form of supervision. But in this article, I’ll be explaining the basic definitions and differences between probation vs. parole.

Probation vs. Parole


First, let’s go over probation. Probation is a sentence a judge gives to someone who’s been found guilty of committing crimes. This type of sentence allows offenders to remain within their community, so long as they adhere to specific conditions laid out by the court. There are two common forms of probation. The first one comes in place of incarceration, meaning that if the offender goes through their probation smoothly, they will not face any jail time at all. On the other hand, probation may be a part of a split sentence, where the offender will spend some time in prison immediately followed by probation. The conditions of an offender’s probation will likely vary from case to case. Nevertheless, these are some of the most common ones:

  • Community service
  • Counseling
  • Participation in treatment programs
  • Payment of fines, fees, or court posts
  • Reporting to a probation officer
  • Restitution
  • Restrictions on weapons
  • Sobriety

What is a probation officer’s role?

Probation officers assist in rehabilitating probationers by supervising them regularly. Their primary goal is to ensure that the probationers are on track and fulfilling their probation’s conditions. Listed below are some of the responsibilities of a probation officer:

  • Assessing a probationer for needs they should have met
  • Closely monitoring the probationer to ensure they’re following court orders
  • Conduct meetings with the probationer, along with their family members
  • Evaluating and arranging treatment programs for probationers
  • Giving drug or alcohol tests to make sure of the probationer’s sobriety
  • Make reports on the probationer’s status and progress and provide recommendations to the court
  • Provide probationers with resources to aid in their rehabilitation
  • Risk assessment of the probationer

The underlying purpose of probation is to ensure that an offender will not pose a danger to the public. Disregarding the terms and conditions of one’s probation can put the public at risk. If an offender is found guilty of violating their probation, they will be brought before a judge, who could sentence them to prison time. 


Parole is the conditional release of a defendant to complete the rest of their sentence outside of prison. The ultimate purpose of releasing someone on parole is to reintegrate them with the rest of society. Parole can either be given to a defendant through the decision of a parole board (discretionary parole) or as specified by provisions of a statute (mandatory parole). The former implies that parole is a privilege, not a right, as not all prisoners will be eligible for it. A prisoner will only be considered for discretionary parole after a certain amount of time has passed in their sentence. Eligibility will depend on the convictions against you, along with your conduct behind bars.

Like probation, parole conditions will also depend on your conviction. But here are some of the common conditions, which we also included in an earlier blog post on parole violations

  • You abide by state and federal laws.
  • You inform your parole officer of where you live and work. 
  • You must not leave the state where you were incarcerated. 
  • You regularly report to your parole officer and notify him of any change of address. Failure to report to your officer could lead to a warrant for your arrest. 
  • You consent to a search by law enforcement at any time, with or without probable cause, and without the need for a search warrant.
  • You must not possess, use, or administer any controlled substances. 
  • You must not be in possession of any firearm or dangerous weapons.
  • You must waive extradition if you are found outside of the state without your supervising officer’s knowledge.

If you want to know what happens to a parolee who violates their parole, read about it in this article

Key differences

The first major procedural difference between the two is that probation is part and parcel of the offender’s initial ruling. In contrast, parole is more conditional in nature, possibly kicking in only after some time spent in prison. You cannot get probation if the judge does not grant it to you at your initial sentencing.

Speaking of judges, this brings us to the next major difference. For probation, judges are the authority responsible for this sentence. As for parole, a parole board decides your eligibility to receive it. 

Lastly, probationers are typically still subject to the jurisdiction of the court. This essentially means that the judge has the right to amend or modify the conditions of one’s probation through a court order. On the other hand, changes to one’s parole do not need a court order but from the parole officer or board

Author Terrence Tan Ting


Terrence Tan Ting is an industrial engineer by profession but a full time writer by passion. He loves to write about a wide range of topics from many different industries thanks to his undying curiosity.

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