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What’s the Difference Between Parole and Probation?

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Although being on probation and being on parole can be quite similar in nature based on their terms and conditions, they’re actually two very different things. Part of the confusion is likely because both parole and probation have similar goals. Regardless, an easy way to keep it straight is that probation is something that happens in lieu of jail time, while parole happens after jail time.

Probation

Depending on the nature of the crime committed, a judge may choose to sentence the defendant to a number of years on probation in lieu of sending them to prison. During this time, someone on probation may be required to:

  • Avoid criminal activities
  • Follow a curfew
  • Not operate a motor vehicle
  • Schedule regular visits with a probation officer.

Terms of probation can vary widely based on the nature and severity of the offense and are set at the sole discretion of the judge presiding over the case. One of two things can occur once someone violates their probation. Either they’ll go to serve out the prison sentence they had probation in lieu of, or they’ll appear again before the original judge for sentencing. Either way, a probation violation often means going to prison.

Parole

Unless someone was sentenced to a set number of years without the possibility of parole, or their crime doesn’t qualify them for parole, their case will come under review of the parole board at predetermined intervals. It is at the sole discretion of the parole board members whether they believe someone deserves to get out early. Unlike probation, the parole board sets the terms of parole, so the sentencing judge takes no part in the process.

Common parole terms include:

  • Avoid committing additional crimes
  • Inability to leave the state without prior permission
  • Living in a halfway house
  • Regular meetings with a parole officer.

As with probation, a parole violation may often mean returning to prison if the parole board deems the offense dire enough. This means that someone paroled from prison for good behavior three years early would return to prison for the remainder of their sentence – three years – if they violate parole. Unlike probation, there is no potential sentencing phase.

The function of both parole and probation serves many purposes, but is primarily designed to help with prison overcrowding by keeping those who commit minor offenses on the street. Both parole and probation also typically incorporate terms designed to rehabilitate the offender and help them adjust to life as a productive citizen.

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