Probation vs Parole: What Is the Difference?

Updated May 24, 2024
5 min read
Title "Probation vs. Parole"; bundle of papers, scales, LAW book, USA flag, handcuffs, notebook, pen

Many people get probation and parole confused and often use them interchangeably. However, the differences between probation and parole are significant in legal terms. When an individual is conditionally released from incarceration, the former prisoner must know their legal status. 

In this guide, we will cover the information on probation vs parole and what is best for your individual case.

What Is Probation?

Probation is when someone convicted of a crime is released back into the community instead of going to or remaining in jail. After convicting someone of a crime, the judge can choose the type of sentence within the legal system’s guidelines for the crime committed. The available choices may or may not include jail time.

In some cases, the sentences can consist of a short time in jail before the person is released on probation. In other cases of probation vs parole, the judge can offer a probation sentence without jail time.

Definition of Parole

Parole vs probation is the conditional release of a prisoner already serving a prison sentence. A public official called a parole officer supervises any individual released on parole. As a condition of the release, the former prisoner must abide by specific rules. Failure to do so constitutes a violation. Certain violations can give the parole officer reason to return the offender to prison.

Parole and Probation Law

Parole and probation are each subjects to the relevant state and federal laws. An individual convicted of a crime and gained release on parole or probation is subject to specific behavioral qualifications. The judge will dictate what rules the offender must follow to avoid jail or additional jail time.

In some cases, a defense attorney may argue that a first-time offender with a minor conviction, such as possessing a small amount of marijuana, should be given a probationary period instead of jail time. The idea behind probation and parole difference is that everyone makes mistakes, so some people should be given a second chance to stay on the right side of the law.

In other cases, a convicted criminal who is incarcerated in jail or prison might shorten the length of that incarceration by arguing to be released due to good behavior. In these situations, a judge may decide that good behavior and the absence of problems during the sentence make the inmate a good candidate for parole. An individual may be given parole vs probation for different reasons, but a judge will typically require the following for those on both parole and probation:

  • Get and maintain a job

  • Avoid any drugs or alcohol

  • Avoid victims of the crime

  • Avoid committing any new crimes

  • Complete some community service hours

  • Regularly check in with the parole or probation officer

Parole and Probation Violation

The rules and the consequences are similar for parole vs probation. If a person fails to check in with their parole and probation officer as scheduled, pass regular drug tests, complete community service hours, and follow other rules. That person violates the conditions of parole or probation. Any violation can mean that, instead of being allowed to remain an active community member, the person would have to serve the rest of the sentence in jail. This is one of possible consequences of probation violation in Virginia.

There are strict rules regarding the offender’s activities while out on probation or parole. When inmates are released early from prison, failure to check in with a parole officer typically constitutes a violation of parole. It can mean that the individual will have to serve the remainder of the sentence in prison. If a parolee breaks the law — usually a felony offense but sometimes a misdemeanor — a judge will likely revoke parole and send the offender back to prison. Minor traffic citations do not usually constitute a violation, but a judge will still expect regular adherence to the other conditions of release.

Is Probation the Same As Parole?

Parole and probation need to be clarified due to their many similarities.

1. They are not a right

Neither prisoners nor probationers have the right to be released from incarceration via parole and probation. Instead, a parole board determines whether prisoners should be released and what conditions should be placed on that release. A judge determines whether an individual who may be eligible will receive probation instead of jail time.

Neither prisoners nor probationers have the right to 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. They can be revoked

A judge can revoke either probation or parole at any time. When a judge informs a convicted individual that they are receiving probation instead of jail time, the terms of that probation will be made clear. Any violation of the terms of the probation will result in the person being required to serve the remainder of their sentence in jail. Similarly, parolees can be revoked if they violate their release conditions.

3. They are conditional

Probation and parole are both conditional. An individual granted probation instead of jail time is not going without punishment. They must still abide by the conditions of the probation, which can include community service activities or several hours volunteering, no convictions of another crime within a specific time frame, passing drug tests, and checking in with a probation officer.

4. They can serve as part of a sentence

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

Key Differences Between Probation and Parole

Although the two are understandably confused based on their similarities, still, there are critical differences between probation and parole, have a couple of essential differences.

When it is given

This parole and probation difference between probation and parole is that parole applies to prisoners convicted and sent to a federal or state prison when they are released before the end of their sentence. Probation applies to individuals convicted of lesser crimes who are not sent to city or county jails unless they violate the terms of their probation.

Who gives it

The other difference between parole and probation is who gives parole and probation. A judge hands down a sentence of probation at the end of a trial or a sentencing hearing. On the other hand, a parole board decides whether to grant parole after an inmate has served some or most of a prison sentence. 

Final Thoughts

The differences between probation and parole are when they are granted and to types of convicted criminals. There are more similarities than there are differences. Understanding parole and probation and knowing the difference can help family members and others better understand the conditions under which each is granted.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who is eligible for parole or probation?

A person’s eligibility to be released from prison on parole or be sentenced to probation varies by jurisdiction and depends on various factors, including the nature of the offense, the offender’s criminal history, and the sentencing laws in the jurisdiction. Generally, violent crimes and extensive criminal records are likely to prevent eligibility for probation or parole. However, specific eligibility requirements are determined by the judge or the parole board.

Can you petition to be removed from parole or probation?

In most cases, a person can petition to be removed from parole or probation supervision. The process varies depending on the state and the specific parole and probation terms.

Generally, a person will need to demonstrate that they have met all requirements of the parole or probation, such as completing required programs, paying fines or restitution, and showing positive changes that indicate the person is unlikely to re-offend. Discuss the matter with an attorney to learn the specific requirements and process.

How can a lawyer help you when you’re on parole or probation?

A lawyer can help in many ways if you are on parole or probation. The attorney can help you learn the difference between parole and provation, ensure that you comply with the terms of your parole or probation, such as meeting with a parole officer or probation officer, completing community service, and avoiding illegal activities.

Additionally, speaking with a lawyer can help you understand your rights and the consequences if you are accused of violating the terms of your parole or probation. If you face additional charges or your parole or probation is being revoked, a lawyer can represent you in court.

Consider consulting with a lawyer if you are on parole or probation to help ensure that you comply with the terms of your release and avoid any potential legal issues.