Probation vs. parole; what’s the difference?

You have probably heard the terms probation and parole. Both the news and entertainment media tend to use the terms interchangeably. While they are similar in many ways, they are actually different concepts under the law.

To better understand the word "probation," it is helpful to know that it comes from the same root word as does the word probate. Probate court is a place where a will is proved or tested to ensure that it is what it purports to be.

Similarly, in criminal court, probation means a period of test or trial; whenever a probationary term exists, it is a period of time to see how something will work before something else may happen. For example, you may have started a new job and been placed on probation. This was to test what type of employee you would be before extending you a full offer of employment. It was a test period where you had to prove yourself.

Similarly, in Minnesota, a person convicted of a crime could be placed on probation instead of being sent to jail or prison to test if they can follow specified rules. The person must prove that they can be trusted and will not get into trouble. If they fail the test, they will be incarcerated.

The word parole comes from a different starting point. Parole means a pledge or promise. It comes from a Latin (and later French) term used for prisoners of war who, in exchange for increased liberty, pledged not to escape or to take up arms against the country that had captured them.

In today's world, the word refers to the promise given by a convicted felon to be of good behavior if released early from prison and restored, at least partly, to liberty. Parole applies to a time period after someone has already been convicted and was serving time in prison. A person is paroled when given an early release from prison. That release is conditioned on the person's promise, or pledge, that they will follow the rules of society and will not get into trouble.

Probation and parole sometimes get mixed up because their terms of compliance can be very similar.

Terms could include: keeping a job, going to school, remaining law abiding, staying away from alcohol and drugs, paying restitution and not associating with certain specified people. Similarly, each is supervised by either a probation officer or a parole officer. Their level of supervision depends on a number of factors, including their personal history and the seriousness of their underlying conviction.

Both probation and parole also only partially restore liberty. Supervising officers, without a warrant, can inspect their homes and demand tests to insure that they are free of illegal substances. For each group, public policymakers have determined that some folks, who are most likely to follow the rules, should not be incarcerated. This is done to promote those people being productive in society and to save on the costs of incarceration.


—Judge Galler is chambered in Washington County. If you have a general question about the law or courts for Judge Galler, send your question to the editor of this newspaper. Learn more about Judge Galler, or listen to a podcast of his columns at

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