What Is the Difference Between Parole And Probation?

By Mackenzie Maxwell - Updated April 23, 2018
prison bars all locked up

While many people use the words “parole” and “probation” interchangeably, the terms are different. They both allow someone who has been convicted of a crime to rejoin society, but these programs serve different roles in a community. If you or a loved one is set to receive either parole or probation, it’s important to understand the difference.

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The judicial system uses probation as an alternative to jail time, while parole is an early release for people who have served significant time in prison.

What Is the Role of Parole and Probation?

Parole is a conditional release for prisoners who have met specific criteria while serving their time. Incarcerated people may appear before a parole board to show that they are ready to serve the remainder of their sentence under the supervision of a parole officer and the surrounding community. Probation gives people who have been convicted of a crime the opportunity to serve their sentences without prison time. Probation is often used for people who have committed non-violent crimes and are not considered a danger to their communities.

Whereas parole generally occurs after a person has served significant time in prison, probation is often used as an alternative to time behind bars. Rarely, a judge may order a split sentence, which is a short time in prison followed immediately by probation.

Both parole and probation allow people who have committed crimes to work, spend time in the community and lead their lives while under the supervision of the justice system.

What Does it Mean to be Released On Parole?

When on parole, the convicted person is allowed to be part of the community as long as he meets certain conditions. Each parolee has unique requirements he must meet to avoid going back to prison. Some of the standard terms for parolees include keeping a job, avoiding contact with the victims of the crime for which they are convicted, regularly attending meetings for recovering addicts and staying within a specific area.

Parolees must also regularly meet with their parole officers. These officials ensure that parolees follow their guidelines and successfully reintegrate into society. At times, the parole officer may drop by the parolee’s home unexpectedly.

What Happens if You Violate Probation for the First Time?

The punishment for violating the conditions for probation may change based on the nature of the violation and your location. For example, a minor infraction in California may mean that you must complete community service. If the offense is truly an accident – for example, if you were hospitalized and could not report to your probation officer – the judge may not issue any punishment. However, if you willingly disobey the conditions of your probation, you could get jail time.

How Can You Serve Two Life Sentences?

If someone is convicted of two crimes that each carries a life sentence, a judge may issue two life sentences. This term can leave many people confused since a person has only one life. To understand how much time a person might spend in prison, you must consider the person's eligibility for parole and whether the life sentences are consecutive.

For example, a judge may issue a life sentence with the eligibility of parole after 25 years in prison. If the convicted person has two consecutive life sentences, the convict may receive parole for the first, and immediately start serving time for the second sentence. The United States Sentencing Commission calls these "de facto" life sentences.

About the Author

Mackenzie Maxwell has always been interested in law, working with legal issues since 2010. She served in Congress for some time, as part of the communications team for Silvestre Reyes and helped constituents understand the laws on the House floor. She stayed active in local politics to understand the laws that govern her area. As a writer, Mackenzie has worked with several lawyers to create thoughtful, helpful content.

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