What's the Difference Between Probation and Parole?

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Probation and parole are privileges—rather than rights—that allow convicted criminals to avoid going to prison or serve only a portion of their sentences. Both are conditional on good behavior, and both have the goal of rehabilitating offenders in a way that prepares them for life in society, thus reducing the likelihood that they will recommit or commit new crimes. 

Key Takeaways: Probation and Parole

  • Probation and parole allow Americans convicted of crimes to avoid serving time in prison.
  • The goal of probation and parole is the rehabilitation of offenders in a way that will reduce the likelihood that they will recommit or commit new crimes.
  • Probation is granted as part of the court’s sentencing process. It affords convicted offenders the opportunity to avoid serving all or part of their sentences in jail.
  • Parole is granted after offenders have been incarcerated for some time, amounting to early release from prison. It is granted or denied by a prison parole board.
  • Both probation and parole are granted conditionally and may be revoked for failure to comply with those conditions.
  • The Fourth Amendment protection from unlawful searches and seizures by law enforcement officers does not extend to persons on probation or parole.

However, there are important similarities and differences between these two often-confused features of the United States correctional system. Since the concept of convicted criminal offenders living in the community can be controversial, it is important to understand the functional differences between probation and parole.

How Probation Works

Probation is granted by the court as part of the convicted offender’s initial sentence. Probation may be granted in lieu of any jail time or after a short period of time in jail.

Restrictions on the offender’s activities during his or her period of probation are specified by the judge as part of the sentencing stage of the trial. During the probationary period, offenders remain under the supervision of a state-administered probation agency. 

Conditions of Probation

Depending on the severity and circumstances of their crimes, offenders may be placed under active or inactive supervision during their probationary period. Offenders under active supervision are required to regularly report to their assigned probation agencies in person, by mail, or by telephone. Probationers on inactive status are excluded from regular reporting requirements.

While free on probation, offenders—known as “probationers”— may be required fulfill certain conditions of their supervision, such as payments of fines, fees, or court costs, and participation in rehabilitation programs.

Regardless of their supervisor status, all probationers are required to adhere to specific rules of conduct and behavior while in the community. Courts have great latitude in imposing condition of probation, which can vary from person to person and case to case. Typical conditions of probation include:

  • Place of residence (for example, not near schools)
  • Reporting to probation officers
  • Satisfactory performance of court-approved community service
  • Psychological or substance abuse counseling
  • Payment of fines
  • Payment of restitution to crime victims
  • Restrictions on the use of drugs and alcohol
  • Prohibition of possession of firearms and other weapons
  • Restrictions on personal acquaintances and relationships

In addition, probationers may be required to make periodic reports to the court showing that they had complied with all conditions of their probation during the reporting period.

How Parole Works

Parole allows convicted offenders to be conditionally released from prison to serve the remaining time of their sentence in the community. The granting of parole may be either discretionary—by the vote of a state-appointed prison parole board, or mandatory—according to provisions established by federal sentencing guidelines.

Unlike probation, parole is not an alternative sentence. Instead, parole is a privilege granted to some prisoners after they have served a percentage of their sentences. Like probationers, parolees are required to comply with terms and conditions while living in the community or face being returned to prison.

Conditions of Parole

Like probationers, offenders released on parole—called “parolees”—are supervised by state-appointed parole officers and may be placed under either active or inactive supervision.

As determined by the parole board, some common conditions of parole include:

  • Reporting to a state-appointed supervisory parole officer
  • Maintaining a job and a place of residence
  • Not leaving a specified geographic area without permission
  • Avoiding criminal activity and contact with victims
  • Passing random drug and alcohol tests
  • Attending drug and alcohol counseling classes
  • Avoiding contact with known criminals

Parolees are typically required to meet periodically with an assigned parole officer. In addition, parole officers often make unannounced visits to parolees’ homes in order to determine whether or not they are complying with their conditions of parole.

Eligibility for Parole

Not all prison inmates are likely to be granted parole. For example, offenders who have been convicted of violent crimes like murder, kidnapping, rape, arson, or aggravated drug trafficking are far more rarely granted parole.

A common misconception about parole is that it can be granted solely as a result of an inmate’s “good behavior” while incarcerated. While behavior is certainly a factor, parole boards consider many other factors, such as the inmate’s age, marital and parental status, mental condition, and criminal history. In addition, the parole board will factor in the severity and circumstances of the crime, the length of time served, and the inmate’s willingness to express remorse for committing the crime. Inmates who are unable to show the ability or willingness to establish a permanent residence and get a job after release are seldom granted parole, regardless of other factors. 

During the parole hearing, the inmate will be questioned by the board members. In addition, members of the public are typically allowed to speak for or against the granting of parole. Relatives of crime victims, for example, often speak at parole hearings. Most importantly, parole will be granted only if the board is satisfied that the inmate’s release will pose no threat to public safety and that the inmate is willing to comply with his or her conditions of parole and is able to reenter the community.

Probation, Parole, and the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the people from unlawful searches and seizures by law enforcement officers does not extend to persons on probation or parole.

Police can search the residences, vehicles, and property of probationers and parolees at any time without a search warrant. Any weapons, drugs, or other items found that violate the conditions of probation or parole may be seized and used as evidence against the probationer or parolee. Along with having their probation or parole revoked, offenders may face additional criminal charges for possessing illegal drugs, guns, or stolen merchandise.

Probation and Parole Statistics Overview

At the end of 2016, some 4.5 million people were on probation or parole—twice the number of people incarcerated in federal prisons and local jails, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). This means that 1 in 55 U.S. adults (nearly 2% of all adults) were on probation or parole in 2016, a population increase of 239% since 1980.

While the purpose of probation and parole is to prevent offenders from returning to jail, BJS has reported that roughly 2.3 million people on probation or parole annually fail to successfully complete their supervision. Failure to complete supervision typically results from the commission of new crimes, rules violations, and “absconding,” leaving hurriedly and secretly, typically to avoid detection of or arrest for a crime. Each year almost 350,000 of those individuals return to jail or prison, often because of rule violations rather than new crimes.

In modeling the parameters and conditions of probation and parole, law enforcement officials strive to answer three key questions:

  • To what extent do people on probation and parole contribute to crime, as measured by arrests?
  • What types of crimes are people on probation and parole most likely to commit? 
  • What strategies can law enforcement employ to better respond to the people being released from prisons and jails to community supervision?

In 2010, the police chiefs of Los Angeles, Redlands, Sacramento, and San Francisco, California commissioned a study to help answer those questions. Collecting and analyzing data from 11 independent agencies, including four local police jurisdictions, county law enforcement and probation agencies, two county sheriffs’ departments and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, researchers collected more than 2.5 million arrest, parole, and probation records generated between January 1, 2008 and June 11, 2011.

Some of the most notable findings included:

The majority of all adult felony and misdemeanor arrests were of people who were not currently under supervision. People on probation or parole accounted for only 22% of total arrests.

Whereas people under probation and parole supervision accounted for one out of every six arrests for violent crimes, they accounted for one out of every three drug arrests.

During a 3.5 year period in which total arrests fell by 18%, the number of arrests involving individuals under parole supervision declined by 61% and by 26% for individuals under probation supervision.


  • Kaeble, Danielle & Bonczar, Thomas P., “,”Probation And Parole In The United States, 2015 Bureau of Justice Statistics, December 21, 2016
  • Abidinsky, Howard. “Probation and Parole: Theory and Practice.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice Hall, 1991.
  • Boland, Barbara; Mahanna, Paul; and Stones, Ronald. “The Prosecution of Felony Arrests,” 1988. Washington, D.C. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1992.
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Probation and Parole Population Reaches Almost 3.8 Million.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1996.
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Longley, Robert. "What's the Difference Between Probation and Parole?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2022, thoughtco.com/what-are-probation-and-parole-4164294. Longley, Robert. (2022, March 2). What's the Difference Between Probation and Parole? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-probation-and-parole-4164294 Longley, Robert. "What's the Difference Between Probation and Parole?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-probation-and-parole-4164294 (accessed June 1, 2023).