Demystifying the Law: Criminal Probation & Parole

Posted September 29, 2011 in Criminal Law by

The number of people on probation or parole has skyrocketed to more than 5 million, up from 1.6 million just 25 years ago. This means that 1 in 45 adults in the United States is now under criminal justice supervision in the community, according to research by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Probation Defined


Probation is a criminal sentence that a judge gives in addition to jail time or instead of jail time.

"Probation is a sentencing option in the majority of criminal cases," says David L. Freidberg, a criminal defense lawyer in Chicago. "For instance, a defendant may be sentenced to probation for burglary, robbery, theft, retail theft, possession of a controlled substance, and certain cases of unlawful use of a weapon. A defendant is most likely to be sentenced to probation if he or she is a first time offender or has no prior felony convictions."

Although it varies from state to state, certain types of criminal charges are not eligible for probation. These might include murder, armed robbery and certain sex crimes.

The judge may order someone on probation to meet certain terms and conditions. For example, the person on probation may have to remain employed, be at home during non-work hours, perform community service work and refrain from drinking alcohol or using drugs. Electronic monitoring bracelets are sometimes used to ensure that the person on probation doesn’t use banned substances and is only in permitted locations.

If a person violates the terms of their probation, they will probably have to go to a court hearing and may be sentenced to jail.

Parole Defined


Parole is a privilege that’s earned after someone has served part of their jail or prison sentence.

Eligibility for parole will vary from state to state. Typically, criminals who have shown good behavior while in jail and who aren’t a threat to the public would be eligible for parole after they’ve served part of their sentence. A parole authority—such as a state parole board or the US Parole Commission—are responsible for deciding whether a prisoner can be paroled. If parole is denied, the prisoner will have to wait until they are eligible for a rehearing.

As with probation, parole comes with certain conditions. For example, a parolee might be required to get a job, go to counseling and meet regularly with a parole officer.

"If a defendant violates the conditions of their parole they can be sent back to the penitentiary to serve out the remainder of their term," Freidberg says. "I say remainder, because in Illinois, for example, a defendant gets day-for-day credit on his sentence. For instance, a four-year prison sentence means the defendant will actually serve a maximum of two years in the penitentiary. They will also get credit for any time they served in custody while their case is pending, before a plea or finding of guilty. If they violate parole, they can be required to serve that extra two years, in this example."

Jennifer E. King co-authors the blog.

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