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Probation and Parole: What’s the Difference?

Ben Michael
  • Parole is an early-release program granted to offenders who have served a portion of their sentence
  • Probation allows offenders to avoid jail altogether
  • Both include strict conditions that must be followed

Parole and probation are rehabilitation initiatives designed to reintegrate offenders back into society. While parole is a privilege granted to offenders who have served a portion of their sentence (i.e., they’ve been released early), probation is sometimes granted as an alternative to incarceration, allowing offenders to avoid jail time altogether.

Both programs have strict conditions that must be adhered to. Violating the conditions can result in severe consequences, including imprisonment.

In this guide, we’ll shed light on the processes, types, eligibility criteria and typical conditions associated with parole and probation.

Understanding Parole

Parole refers to the early, supervised release of a prisoner. Some offenders are granted this privilege by a parole board. It allows them to serve the remainder of the sentence out in the community.

Parole serves as an important tool for reintegrating offenders into society. Through careful supervision to ensure public safety and reduce the risk of recidivism, candidates are given guidance, help, support, and the necessary resources to rebuild their lives.

However, parole comes with certain legal conditions and obligations. We’ll cover these in more detail later, but typical conditions include:

  • Restricted travel (remaining within state and county lines)
  • Regular check-ins with a parole officer
  • Regular drug tests
  • Participation in education and treatment programs (such as drug or alcohol counseling)
  • Stable employment or enrollment in school

Role of Parole Boards in Decision-Making

Unlike probation, which is granted by a judge, parole can only be granted by a parole board.

The board plays a crucial role in evaluating parole applications and assessing the risks associated with early release for each individual before making decisions based on all available information.

In addition to deciding whether an individual is a suitable candidate for early release, the parole board is responsible for setting parole rules and conditions.

Parole boards must ensure that each applicant is given fair consideration, but they must also prioritize public safety. To do this, the board will typically review and evaluate a variety of information, data, and evidence, such as 

  • The offender’s criminal history
  • The offender’s conduct and behavior during their time in jail
  • The candidate’s record of participation in rehabilitation or education programs
  • The candidate’s plans for rehabilitation
  • Impact statements from victims of the crime
  • Psychiatric or medical evaluations and assessments

The decision to grant parole is not taken lightly. Any risks — perceived or actual — to the safety or security of members of the public or of reoffending can be grounds for denying parole.

Probation Explained

During conviction, judges sometimes impose probation as an alternative to incarceration. It’s a court-ordered period of supervision that allows offenders to rehabilitate while minimizing the risk of recidivism.

Not everyone is eligible for probation. While it can be granted in lieu of jail time for misdemeanor and felony offenses, the judge (or the jury) must weigh the risks versus the benefits on a case-by-case basis. Several factors will be considered, including:

  • The defendant’s criminal record
  • The nature and severity of the offense
  • The defendant’s personal and family circumstances
  • The risk of recidivism (reoffending)
  • Risk to public safety
  • Impact on the victim/s involved
  • The defendant’s perceived willingness to comply with probation conditions
  • The defendant’s perceived willingness to change for the better

Depending on jurisdiction, some offenses are not eligible for probation. For example, in Texas, the judge cannot order probation for someone convicted of burglary.

Types of Probation

Supervised Probation

The most common type of probation is supervised or standard probation. In this type, the probationer is allowed to serve their entire sentence out in the community, but they must comply with specific conditions, such as regular meetings with the probation officer, drug or alcohol testing, community service hours and attendance at counseling or educational programs. 

Unsupervised Probation

Unsupervised probation is similar to standard or supervised probation but without the expectation of regular meetings with a supervision or probation officer. Instead, probationers are expected to complete the conditions or requirements of the order within a certain period and avoid getting into any more trouble. For example, a person may be ordered to pay fines and restitution and complete an anger management course within six months.

Sometimes, probationers are required to meet with a probation officer at the beginning or end of their sentence.

Intensive Probation

Intensive probation is a more prohibitive form of supervised probation. Typically, the probationer is expected to meet more often with the supervision officer and may be subject to random visits and drug and alcohol tests. Sometimes, probationers are monitored closely through various tools, such as electronic monitoring tags.

Deferred Adjudication

If granted, deferred adjudication is a particular type of probation that allows defendants to avoid a conviction upon successfully completing their sentence. In other words, as long as the defendant complies with the conditions and meets all the requirements set out by the court, their charges get dropped. This type of probation is more commonly available to first-time offenders. 

It’s important to note that deferred adjudication is not the same as a dismissal. Even after successfully completing your deferred adjudication term, the offense will remain on your record – though not as a conviction – until your record is sealed or expunged. 

Differences Between Parole and Probation

Probation and parole are not the same.

Parole applies to offenders who are granted supervised release from jail or prison before serving their entire sentence. Providing they comply with the conditions set out by the parole board, the offenders are permitted to serve the rest of their sentence out in the community, where they will have the opportunity to reintegrate with society. The state’s parole board is responsible for reviewing whether an individual is ready for release and setting the parole conditions.

Probation applies to offenders who have not served jail time for the offense in question. Instead, their prison sentence is suspended, and they can serve their sentence in the community instead. Additionally, the sentencing judge is responsible for setting out the terms and conditions of the probation order.

Eligibility Criteria for Parole and Probation

Several factors impact a person’s eligibility for parole and probation. Remember, the judge (or parole board) must evaluate any risks to public safety, determine the realistic probability for the offender to rehabilitate successfully, and decide on the best outcome for society overall. A risk assessment to evaluate a person’s eligibility for parole or probation may include the following factors:

The Nature and Severity of the Offense

The nature and severity of the offense are crucial deciding factors in parole and probation decisions. Probation and parole are less likely to be granted for violent offenses that risk or harm the health and safety of the public.

State statutes dictate which offenses are ineligible for probation and parole. In Texas, a defendant would NOT be eligible for probation (also called community supervision) if the following circumstances apply:

  • The defendant is sentenced to more than 10 years in prison
  • The defendant is convicted of a state jail felony for which the sentence is automatically suspended
  • The defendant is convicted of indecency with a child, sexual assault, or aggravated sexual assault, particularly if the victim was under 14 years old at the time of the offense
  • The defendant is convicted of aggravated kidnapping of a victim under 14, with intent to assault or abuse them sexually
  • The defendant is convicted of trafficking offenses, promoting or forcing prostitution, and offenses related to sexual performance by a child
  • The defendant received an enhanced conviction due to possession of a controlled substance in a drug-free zone, especially if it is a repeat offense
  • The defendant receives an enhanced conviction for delivering or manufacturing controlled substances.

Criminal History

A criminal record can significantly impact parole and probation decisions, especially if it demonstrates a pattern of criminal behavior or a history of violent offenses. Either can reduce the chances of parole or probation being granted. Conversely, a clean record showing no prior offenses will benefit the applicant.

Individual Circumstances

The defendant’s personal circumstances and background, including their age, mental health status, employment status, substance abuse issues, and community ties, can impact parole and probation decisions.

A defendant who’s an otherwise upstanding community member with family and a full-time legitimate career, for example, may stand a better chance of being granted parole or probation. These factors demonstrate that the defendant has stability and routine in their life and can contribute positively to society.

Behavior and Conduct

For defendants seeking probation, a clean record with no history of criminal offenses, character statements from authoritative figures in the community, and a career are all viewed as positive factors that demonstrate good behavior and conduct and an ability to integrate with society.

For offenders seeking parole, their behavior and conduct during incarceration will also be considered. Good conduct during their prison stay, including participation in rehabilitation programs, is viewed favorably.

People on parole or probation have legal rights and obligations that must be adhered to as part of their program.

Legal Rights During Probation and Parole

Under the Fourth Amendment, individuals are protected against unreasonable government searches. For police to be able to conduct a search, they must first establish probable cause. This right is limited if a person is on parole or probation.

One of the conditions of supervision is that authorities have the right to search the parolee or probationer and their property if there is reasonable suspicion that the program’s conditions have been violated. Authorities can carry out the search without having to establish probable cause.

Similarly, the Fifth Amendment grants people the right to remain silent and have an attorney present during questioning. However, people on parole and probation are expected to answer questions about their activities and employment truthfully when asked by their supervision officer.

That said, individuals still maintain their right to remain silent if police question them about a new criminal allegation.

Additionally, everyone on parole and probation has the right to due process. Probationers and parolees have the right to a hearing before their parole or probation is revoked, the right to legal counsel, and the right to be informed of any accusations or violations. They also have the right to appeal any decisions made by the supervision officer or the court.

Legal Obligations and Conditions of Probation and Parole

People on parole and probation must comply with all of the conditions of their program. Though the exact conditions and obligations will differ from case to case, some of the most common conditions include:

  • Mandatory check-ins: Regular meetings with a supervision officer.
  • Mandatory random drug and alcohol testing: These happen randomly and without warning. Refusing to take the test is the same as failing it and can, therefore, be counted as a violation.
  • Restrictions on activities or associations: One requirement may be that the individual refrain from meeting or associating with known criminals.
  • Fines and restitution: A common condition of probation is that the offender must make regular payments towards their fines and restitution.
  • Community service: It is common to be ordered to complete several hours of community service as part of the parole or probation program.
  • Court-ordered classes: The court may order the competition of specific educational courses that aid in rehabilitation and reintegration. This includes anger management and alcohol awareness classes.   
  • Travel restriction: Often, if a person is released for parole or granted community supervision, they will be ordered to remain within a specific geographical area.
  • Ignition Interlock Device: It’s common for people on probation for DWI charges to be ordered to install and use an ignition interlock device that monitors their blood alcohol content levels when driving. The authorities review the results.

Violating parole and probation conditions can lead to various consequences, including a revocation of the program and either a jail sentence or — in the case of parolees — a return to jail.

Rehabilitation Programs and Support Services

The purpose of parole and probation is to rehabilitate and reintegrate people back into society. This can only be done through successfully tackling the underlying issues that may have led to criminal behavior in the first place.

Various rehabilitation programs and support services exist for this very reason. These initiatives provide probationers and parolees with resources, skills, and guidance to overcome challenges such as:

  • Substance abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Mental health issues
  • Lack of education or employment skills
  • A history of trauma

Through participation in rehabilitation programs, parolees and probationers can access therapy, counseling, education, and job training.

Additional support with housing assistance and healthcare access are also vital, especially to those who have just been released from jail. These support services can help people navigate life outside of prison.  

Challenges and Controversies

Though parole and probation can be genuinely helpful to people going through the criminal justice system, the programs face various challenges and controversies. 

The primary issue is the lack of fairness. While the system is supposed to be fair, there’s often debate about how decisions are made when deciding who is granted or denied parole (or community supervision), the conditions imposed, and the consequences for violating the conditions.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. As a result, critics argue that certain populations are often unfairly targeted or face harsher treatment based on their race, prior criminal history, or socio-economic status.

Additionally, parole and probation support services are not always as available as needed. For example, there could be a lack of mental health support in some geographic areas, whereas a person from a wealthy background may find it easier to access the support they need.

On the other hand, societal perceptions toward parolees and probationers can have a significant impact on reintegration. Landlords and employees will often choose a candidate with no criminal history over someone with a conviction. Individuals who face this unfair stigma may find it challenging to secure housing and stable employment — both of which would promote successful rehabilitation and reintegration and, crucially, reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

With so many factors affecting the decision to grant or deny probation or parole, the proceedings are often incredibly complex. Legal representation is crucial for anyone involved in parole or probation proceedings, as it can significantly increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.

Our team at Michael & Associates will provide guidance and support, ensure defendants are aware of their rights and options, help to prepare for hearings, gather evidence, and prepare and present a strong case to the court or parole board — potentially resulting in early release for parolees or a reduced supervision sentence for probationers.

Additionally, we can negotiate with prosecutors or parole officers to secure more lenient or favorable conditions for the program.

If you or a loved one are facing probation or parole proceedings in Texas, book your free case review from Michael & Associates today.

FAQs About Parole and Probation

What’s the Primary Goal of Parole and Probation?

The primary purpose of probation and parole is to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders back into society while minimizing the risk of recidivism.

Can Parole or Probation End Early Based on Specific Conditions?

Under certain circumstances, both probation and parole can end early. Some types of probation come with a mandatory waiting period. Additionally, all fines, restitution, and other conditions, including counseling, education courses, and community hours, must have been paid and completed first.

If a parolee has served 50% of their sentence, they can sometimes be released from parole if the parole officer recommends it. 

If you’re on probation, you must complete 25% of your term before you’ll be eligible for early termination. 

What Sets Probation Apart from Parole in a Significant Way?

Parole is the early, supervised release of an offender who has already served a portion of their sentence in prison. Probation is a sentence that is entirely served outside of jail, in the community, under supervision. Both probationers and parolees are subject to strict conditions and meetings with a supervision or parole officer.

Is Parole More Challenging than Probation?

The challenges of parole and probation are similar in many ways. The most significant difference is that a parolee would have already served some time in jail and may, therefore, find it more difficult to reintegrate.

What Are the Benefits of Both Probation and Parole?

Parole and probation programs help people who have made mistakes reintegrate back into society, assist in their rehabilitation, and give them the resources and support they need to make a brighter future for themselves. These initiatives aim to tackle the underlying issues that led to criminal behavior and thereby reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

Ben Michael

Ben has vast experience in defending criminal cases ranging from DWIs to assault, drug possession, and many more. He has countless criminal charges dismissed and pled down. Among many other awards, one of the Top 10 Criminal Defense Attorneys in Texas and winner of Top 40 under 40.

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