Probation and Parole: Know the Difference

The words “parole” and “probation” are often confused and interchanged despite having different meanings and occurring at different times during the legal process.  While they seem the same on the surface, they are very different and should not be confused with one another. Let’s take a look at the differences between the two “p words”.


Probation is a sentence that is served outside of prison without the need to be incarcerated.  Probation has conditions with it that may include checking in with a probation officer, remaining employed, avoiding drug use, etc.  


Parole is the remaining part of a sentence that is served outside of prison after an inmate has been incarcerated for a period of time.  Parole has conditions with it that may include checking in with a parole officer, remaining employed, avoiding drug, use etc.

The Difference

It’s easy to see why people confuse them.   Essentially, probation is an alternative to jail time while parole is a reward for good behavior in prison.  One avoids prison and the other shortens the prison term.

Probation is designed to keep non-violent, first-time offenders out of jail.  It is something that is decided by a judge at sentencing because it is the sentence.  The defendant will receive a specified amount of time for which they are on probation and they must meet all required conditions during that time.  If the conditions of probation are violated, the defendant will be brought back to court to be resentenced. Because the defendant couldn’t stick to the terms, he or she will most likely be sentenced to prison time.

If the probationer is required to check in with a probation officer, he or she is considered to be in active status.  For many, there are no requirements to check in because of the lack of severity of the crime and they are considered inactive.  An inactive probationer must still refrain from committing crimes or they will be resentenced by the court.

Some jurisdictions will use a “split sentence” which is a sentence that consists of a short prison term followed by jail time.

The reason for allowing probation as a sentence for a crime is to keep non-violent criminals from becoming violent ones.  Being incarcerated can have detrimental effects on a person including job loss, loss of custody of children, not to mention the mental and physical abuse that can happen in prison.  

Parole, on the other hand, is when someone who is already in prison serving a sentence for a crime for which they were convicted is released early, usually due to good behavior while in prison.  In essence, the remainder of their sentence is served “on the outside” under the supervision of a parole officer. Parole usually comes with conditions such as no drug use, no associating with known criminals, and attend regular meetings with a parole officer.  

Parole is used as an incentive for following the rules in prison.  Parole can cut years off a person’s incarceration so the incentive is strong.  If the conditions of parole are violated, the person is returned to prison to serve out the remainder of the original prison sentence.

Provided you’ve served enough of your sentence, as determined by a judge, you will be allowed a hearing with the parole board that will consider the original crime as well as your behavior while incarcerated.  

If the conditions of parole aren’t met, the defendant will return to prison for the remainder of the original sentence.  If the terms were violated by committing a crime, the defendant will most likely be incarcerated longer.

A Taxed System

Overcrowding continues to be a major problem in the U. S. prison systems.  Probation and parole are designed to keep or get people out of prison to ease the pressures of overcrowding.  Probation also serves as a highly effective incentive to behave while in prison.

The parole system is far from perfect.  Parole offices are underfunded, overworked, and understaffed.  And just because parole has been granted, it doesn’t mean that a person has been rehabilitated to the point of being able to lead a productive life.  Nor does it mean that without an effective drug treatment program, the parolee won’t return to drugs. Prison recidivism rates continue to rise with many parolees finding themselves back in prison rather quickly.  

While some may argue their effectiveness, parole and probation remain important tools in today’s justice system to control prison populations and crimes being perpetrated within the prison walls, as well as keeping those who commit minor crimes from spending time in jail.

If you or a loved one are arrested in the New Port Richey area, Mercy Bail Bonds can help.  Our experts can walk you through the bail bonds process and get you or your loved one out of jail quickly and confidentially.  We’re available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help you in your time of need. So if you’ve been arrested in New Port Richey, call us today at (727) 856-7775.