What's the Difference Between Probation and Parole?

Many people assume that probation and parole are two words for the same thing. They are often confused in media depictions of courtroom proceedings. In practice, they can look very similar; however, there are actually some key differences between the two.



Probation is a criminal sentence that is served outside of custody. When probation is granted, it happens before the defendant has served any time at all, meaning that he or she will never be brought into custody for this particular crime. The full sentence will be served outside of custody as long as probation terms are met. These vary from case to case but generally include things like meeting with the probation officer, holding a steady job, and not using drugs. 

Probation is only offered to first-time, non-violent offenders to keep them out of prison. The advantages of probation are numerous for the defendant, for the taxpayers, and for society in general. The defendant benefits by avoiding incarceration; the prison benefits by not becoming even more unnecessarily overcrowded, and society can benefit by preventing the defendant from becoming radicalized in prison, which could pose a greater threat to society.

Probation is granted by the courts at the time of sentencing.

If the defendant violates any conditions of probation, he or she will be brought back to court for re-sentencing. The most common re-sentencing includes mandatory prison time.


Parole is granted after an inmate has already served some time in custody and offers the inmate early release under supervision. Parole is usually offered to inmates who have demonstrated good behavior while incarcerated. Like probation, parole limits the overcrowding of the prison system and offers the parolee relative freedom in which to serve the remainder of his or her sentence.

Parole is issued by the parole board during a parole hearing after the inmate has served enough time to be eligible. Many prisoners become eligible for parole after a specified period of time; however, state law can make prisoners who have committed certain kinds of crimes ineligible for parole. 

If a parolee violates conditions of parole, he or she will be returned to prison to serve out the remainder of the original sentence. Additionally, if the person committed other crimes or violated the terms of parole, there will be added prison time to serve. Some common conditions of parole include that the parolee maintain a job and a residence, avoid criminal activity, refrain from drug and/or alcohol use and attend meetings if necessary, and not leave a specified geographic area without discussing it with the parole officer.


Probation and parole can look similar in practice but are actually two very different things. For more information on legal processes or assistance with a bail-related issue, contact us today.

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