Differences Between Parole and Probation Officers

A parole officer and a probation officer both perform different roles. While both deal with convicted criminals, parole officers deal with criminals who have served a prison sentence. Probation officers help convicted criminals who have been granted probation—they don't have to go to prison, but they need help to keep from returning to a life of crime.

Sometimes criminals go to jail or prison, and other times they are sentenced to probation. When convicted criminals are granted parole or sentenced to probation, they submit to the supervision of a government employee with specific job duties.

There are many similarities between parole officers and probation officers. They both help convicted criminals become law-abiding members of society through a mixture of supervision, counseling, social work, and case management. They plan and coordinate services tailored to each offender’s needs. For example, parole or probation officer arranges anger management classes for an offender who committed a crime in a reactionary rage. The necessary skills are identical in the two positions.

While the jobs are very similar, there are a few critical differences between parole and probation officers. 

The Individuals Supervised

Probation officer talks to arrested man
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Parole officers supervise individuals who have been convicted and served time in prison. Parole is typically granted to offenders before their sentences run out. Offenders serve a significant portion of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole. When a parole board grants parole to an offender, that board believes that with some supervision, the offender can reintegrate himself into society and lead a life free from criminal activity.

Probation officers supervise individuals who have been convicted of a crime but have been sentenced to probation rather than jail time. Sometimes a judge orders both prison time and subsequent probation, but the sentence is usually one or the other. When a judge sentences someone to probation, the judge believes the convicted individual can turn from criminal activity with some guidance from a probation officer.

People who are sentenced to probation have mixed feelings about the situation. On one hand, they are upset they've been convicted. On the other hand, they're happy not to be in jail or prison. Their situations could be much worse. A few counseling sessions and regular meetings with a probation officer are more than preferable to months or years of incarceration. Meeting with a probation officer is better than living under the authority of correctional officers.

The fact that a parolee has been in prison poses an additional challenge that a parole officer must face that a probation officer does not. The parolee has spent years in the company of other convicted criminals. Some fellow inmates have likely reinforced and glorified criminal behavior if for no other reason than to maintain status within the prison’s social system. Breaking a pattern of thought that has been ingrained in the parolee can be difficult. This isn’t to say that probation officers do not have to influence the way people think; however, those on probation have not lived in an institutional setting for criminals.

Oversight Organization

Parole is overseen by a state or federal parole board. and parole officers exercise their authority under the authority of a parole board. These boards determine whether an offender is ready to be released. Parole gives offenders a transition between institutionalization and independent living.

Probation is a sentencing option for a criminal court. Probation officers perform their duties as authorized by the sentencing court. Officers keep the court informed of each individual’s progress toward meeting the requirements outlined by the judge when the offender was sentenced to probation.

Caseload Size

Parole officers tend to carry lower caseloads than probation officers. On average, parole officers meet with offenders more often than probation officers. The caseload of any parole or probation officer usually depends on how frequently contacts are required between the officer and individuals supervised. The contacts required often vary from offender to offender. For example, an offender with a greater propensity to commit a future crime requires more frequent contact than someone whose crime was an aberration from normal behavior.