Many people get parole officers and probation officers mixed up. It’s an understandable mistake, given that both work with someone who has been convicted of a crime. The real difference between a probation officer and a parole officer has to do with the sentencing of those they work with.
Probation officers typically supervise people who have not been ordered–or remanded–to state prison, while parole officers usually work with those who have served part of their sentence in state prison and who have been provisionally released–or paroled–back into the community.
In most places, persons convicted of misdemeanors such as driving under the influence or domestic violence, receive “court” or “informal” probation for a fixed period of time. As long as they are not cited for committing a new offense or for violating the terms of their release (perhaps by failing to complete any court-ordered counseling sessions), they remain free and do not report to anyone, as the judge hearing their case serves as their “informal” probation officer.
In contrast, those who are convicted of a felony usually face the potential of being incarcerated for a year or more, either in state prison or in a local jail. Because felonies are more serious crimes, before a judge will sentence a defendant in a felony case they will usually request a report from the County probation office asking for their input on what the defendant’s sentence should be. Probation officers must interview the defendant, examine the defendant’s past criminal history, review the facts of the case and provide an estimate to the Court on how likely the defendant is to successfully complete a probationary term and how difficult they are expected to be to supervise.
If the court grants the defendant probation, their probation officer is in charge of making sure they are living a lawful life that contributes to the community. This means that they are in charge of drug testing, searches, and making sure that the limitations created by the probation have not been broken. If the defendant is found in violation of his or her probation, it’s up to their probation officer to tell the court.
In contrast, a parole officer usually works with defendants who have been sentenced to state prison. Instead of trying to determine how likely it is that the defendant can be successfully supervised, a parole officer’s goal is to prepare a reentry plan so that the defendant can rejoin society after serving what may have been a lengthy prison stay. This might include trying to determine where the best place is for a prisoner to live after release and what other steps they need to take to maximize the chances they will be able to be honorably discharged from their parole. In the case of registered sex offenders, a parole officer must usually plan for the defendant to be supervised for the rest of their lives to some degree, if only by being required to register their address each year.
Both parole and probation officers are an important part of the criminal justice system. If you are interested in becoming a parole or probation officer, taking our Criminal Justice Program online is a good place to start.