What’s the difference between Parole & Probation?

The  many consequences of California’s Realignment law (AB 109) continue to unfold: One of the most major shifts is that people convicted of certain non-serious, nonviolent or non-sex felony offenses are being transferred from state prisons and parole to county jail and probation. With probation and parole making headlines, we want to clarify and define a few terms that relate to the criminal justice system’s supervision of people after they are released from prison or jail. The differences between parole, probation, and community supervision are difficult to understand—in part, because California lawmakers, judges, and scholars are still working to make sense of those differences themselves. To help you decode the media flurry around Realignment and its impact, here is a short primer on each of those terms:

Probation: Probation is a type of original sentence handed down by a judge at trial, often instead of incarceration. Probation in California (CA Penal Code Section 1203) reduces or eliminates the time that a person must spend in custody. It allows a person convicted of a crime to remain in a community setting under supervision—under certain conditions. Their movements and activities may be highly restricted but they are allowed to remain in their communities, to contribute to society, and to vote in local and national elections. Depending on the circumstances, the court or probation officer monitors the person’s compliance with his/her probation terms. There is a good summary of California probation online here.

Parole: In California, parole is a condition of release for a person coming out of prison. California parole only applies in felony cases where a person is sent to California state prison and it only takes effect after their release. Unlike probation, which might be part of an initial sentence, parole allows individuals early release from their prison sentences. While probation is a sentence handed down by a judge, parole may be granted by a parole board after a person has served time. The conditions of parole are usually similar to the conditions of probation. An individual on parole, however, is denied their right to vote for the entire time they remain on parole. The standard conditions of parole are listed on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s website here. People who are sentenced to state prison for potential life sentences (for example, 25 years to life) are only eligible for parole after they serve the determinate part of their sentence, after the parole board determines that they are ready to re-enter society.  That determination takes place during a California Board of Parole Hearings suitability (“Lifer”) hearing. There is a good summary of California parole online here.

Realignment and Community Supervision: In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declared overcrowding in California’s prisons to be cruel and unusual punishment. The court demanded that California cut its prison population, and the state responded by passing the Public Safety Realignment Act. Under the new law, people released from a state prison after incarceration for non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual crimes are placed under supervision by local, county probation officers. This third form of supervision is called Post-Release Community Supervision (PRCS).  In short, Realignment allows counties to decide how best to supervise and serve the needs of individuals exiting jails and prisons. A national news story about Los Angeles County’s approach can be found here. San Francisco County’s implementation plan can be found here. It is also important to note that under the new law, if a person on community supervision violates the terms of his or her release, that person won’t return to state prison. Instead, local agencies will take on those cases as well.

Federal Probation and Parole: People convicted of certain federal offenses may be sentenced to federal probation or supervised released. As the community corrections arm of the federal judiciary and an agency of the U.S. District Courts, The U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System oversees federal probation. A much smaller group of people—namely those sentenced prior to November 1, 1987, those who violated laws of the District of Columbia, those convicted of crimes within the military criminal justice system, and people convicted in certain foreign transfer treaty cases—may still be on federal parole, which the Sentencing Act of 1984 otherwise eliminated. To learn more about how federal probation differs from state and local community corrections and supervision, please visit the U.S. Courts website.

Understanding what life—including one’s legal rights or restrictions—can look like for returning citizens is the first step in finding creative and holistic ways to reduce barriers and maximize opportunities for people’s success in the community as they return home. We at Root & Rebound are passionate about sharing our knowledge and resources on reentry as well as collaborating with all the great agencies and non-profits in the Bay Area to support & stand alongside returning citizens.

— The R & R Team



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