Parole Officer vs. Probation Officer: Which One is Right For You?

two boxing gloves with parole office and probation officer icons 

You’re that person who can talk to just about anyone, regardless of their background. You enjoy helping people get on a better track and love the idea of work that is rewarding and keeps your community safe. If you’re considering a career in criminal justice, you’ve probably encountered the parole officer versus probation officer conundrum.

You know both professions play a pivotal role in the criminal justice system, but you have no idea how they differ from one another. How can you confidently choose your career path if you don’t know where each path leads?

Consider this article your road map. We used a combination of government information, real-time job analysis software and expert insight to help you understand the differences when comparing a parole officer versus probation officer.

Parole vs. Probation: The functional differences

With such similar names and functions, it’s understandable that there is some confusion over parole versus probation. The basic concepts are comparable, according to Eileen Carlin, state program coordinator for the Rasmussen College School of Justice Studies.

“Probation and parole are both meant to assist individuals who have been accused of committing a crime and allow them to live in the community,” Carlin explains. “However, this is where the similarity ends.”

Keep reading to understand the functions of parole versus probation.

The purpose of parole

“Parole is not a sentence but rather the supervision of a prisoner who has just been released from prison,” Carlin says. Parolees are conditionally released from prison to serve the remainder of their sentence in the community, under the supervision of a parole officer.

Prisoners may be released to parole by a parole decision board (discretionary release) or according to provisions of a statute (mandatory release), according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Parolees are usually required to abide by certain guidelines and failure to comply can result in return to incarceration.

The purpose of probation

Probation is a sentence normally reserved for those who have committed non-violent offenses, according to Carlin. A judge will opt for a probation sentence if he or she believes the perpetrator would benefit more from working or going to school rather than sitting in a jail cell.

The BJS notes that a probation sentence is generally in lieu of incarceration. Individuals on probation can have different supervision requirements. Those sentenced to active supervision must regularly report to their assigned probation officer. Those on an inactive supervision status means they are exempt from regular reporting.

Carlin adds that every probation sentence includes a provision that if the probationer fails to obey the rules, they will automatically be sent to jail. “As you can see, when we discuss parole and probation, we’re discussing two very different worlds,” she says.

Parole vs. Probation: The professional differences

Now that you understand the functional differences of parole versus probation, it will be easier to comprehend the career differences.

What does a parole officer do?

Most parole officers are employed by state or local governments. Carlin explains that these individuals help exiting prisoners make the difficult transition back into the community after being incarcerated for several years. Parole officers meet regularly with their parolees to ensure they are abiding by the conditions of their release. A parole officer may be the one to decide if a parolee goes back to prison if violations occur.

"When we discuss parole and probation, we're discussing two very different worlds."

Working with violent offenders makes the role of a parole officer quite dangerous. They are responsible for inspecting the home where the prisoner will live once released and are usually armed when conducting these visits, according to Carlin. The job is risky, but it’s also rewarding knowing you are assisting in the reform and rehabilitation of parolees.

Duties of a parole officer:

  • Meet with soon-to-be-released inmates to create individualized parole plans
  • Help parolee find a place to live, employment or treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues.
  • Regularly meet with parolee to monitor and evaluate his/her progress
  • Conduct drug/alcohol tests and home visits to ensure conditions of release are being met
  • Documenting visits, attending court hearings and communication with employers/counselors regarding parolees

What does a probation officer do?

“The career of a probation officer is part police officer and part social worker,” Carlin says. These government employees are responsible for policing the behavior of the probationers assigned to them while also helping them succeed in the community.

Probation officers usually work with nonviolent or first-time offenders. Carlin explains that as a rule, probation officers are not armed. However, they are still required to conduct home visits to interview family members in situations that aren’t always ideal. The role of a probation officer can be quite stressful, but it’s satisfying knowing you’re helping individuals turn their life around and helping society cut down on crime.

Duties of a probation officer:

  • Interview and evaluate offenders in order to make recommendations to judges and help determine conditions of the probation sentence
  • Monitor offender to ensure they are abiding by the rules set in place
  • Regularly meet with probationers to assess their progress, administer drug tests and follow-up with treatment plans
  • Writing pre-sentencing reports and documenting visits with probationers

Parole vs. Probation: Job requirements

If one of these positions is starting to peak your interest, the next logical question is: What do I need to do to become one? Learn about the educational and training requirements needed for each career.

Requirements to become a parole officer

First and foremost, prospective parole officers must acquire at least a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, psychology, social work or a related degree, according to Carlin. We analyzed hundreds of parole officer jobs posted over the past year to find out what’s being required from candidates. 92 percent of listings called for at least a bachelor’s degree.*

Carlin adds that many parole officers must also attend a parole academy, similar to a police academy, prior to assuming their role. Candidates must also pass extensive background investigations to ensure they have no felony convictions in their past. Other oral, written, physical and psychological exams may also be required, according to Carlin.

Requirements to become a probation officer

The formal education needed for probation officers is similar to that of parole officers. Carlin says a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, corrections, human services or psychology is typically required. The aforementioned job analysis found that 72 percent of employers require their probation officers to have at least a bachelor’s degree.*

Most probation officers also must complete a training program sponsored by their state or federal government. They may also be required to work as an officer-in-training for up to one year before entering a full-time position. A background investigation will likely be required to become a probation officer as well.

Parole vs. Probation: The bottom line

Next time you hear the parole officer versus probation officer debate come up, you can confidently explain the differences between these two criminal justice careers. They each come with unique challenges, but they’re both extremely rewarding.

You’re now aware that a formal education is needed to pursue either of these professions. If you’re interested in following one of these career paths, learn how a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice could be your first step.


* (analysis of parole and probation officer job postings, Apr. 22, 2014 – Apr. 19, 2015)

Megan Ruesink

Megan is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She hopes to engage and intrigue current and potential students.


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