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  • NEW Reentry Staff

Know the difference: Probation vs Parole

Have you ever met someone who is on parole? How about probation? You probably don’t realize it, but chances are you have encountered several people who are either on parole or probation. In the United States, more than 3.6 million people are on parole or probation. Although most Americans recognize those terms, very few can accurately define them. Let’s talk about the difference and significance of parole vs. probation.

Probation is sentenced during your trial and may or may not include jail time, depending on the crime and the sentencing judge. Probation is a common punishment for misdemeanors or other minor infractions. Most lawyers will ask the judge for probation during their client’s trial. During probation, a person is supervised by the government through a probation officer and must meet certain demands, including job, no drug usage, and community service requirements. Probation is usually an alternative to jail or prison time and can last between a few months to a few years.

When a person serves prison time and demonstrates good behavior, they are eligible for parole. Parole is granted or denied by a parole board. Parole is usually only given to people with felony charges, but misdemeanor offenders in prison can also be granted parole. Most inmates will request parole once they become eligible, which is determined by a judge at sentencing. Similar to probation, once granted, a parolee is required to fulfill requirements relating to housing, job, abstinence from drugs among others. Both probation and parole provide an opportunity for reentry into society with supervision and support.

Probation and parole have strict restrictions. Individuals on probation or parole have an assigned officer with weekly or monthly check-ins to monitor their behavior. These officers help them formulate plans to transition back into society, provide resources and recommendations as well as enforce the guidelines. People on probation or parole are required to remain in the state in which they reside. Under certain circumstances, a judge or probation officer can lift the restrictions. A violation of any of the terms of their release makes the individuals eligible for a new sentence.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 55% of the people under correctional control, or 3.6 million, are on probation, and 11% or 870,000 are on parole. Clearly, probation is a common alternative to jail time in the United States. The objective of probation or parole is to rehabilitate a person’s behavior and help them become a more successful member of society. However, the system is far from perfect, and for some, the restrictions of parole and probation can be so harsh that they’re difficult to uphold.

Because of mass incarceration, chances are you already know someone or will soon know someone who is involved in the justice system. Understanding more about probation and parole will help you provide proper support and help fight for better options for that person.


Kelley Traynham is a writer in the North Carolina Community Action Association’s

Communications Fellows Program. NCCAA Communications Fellows are students or recent

graduates pursuing a career in communications, graphic design, IT, public policy or a related

field. They receive a stipend for their participation in the program. For more information on the NCCAA Communications Fellows Program, please contact Yvette Ruffin, director of the NCCAA Communications Fellows Program.

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