Probation & Parole: Overview, History & Purposes

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  • 0:02 Probation
  • 2:17 History of Probation
  • 3:38 Parole
  • 5:15 History of Parole
  • 7:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

More offenders are sentenced to probation and parole than are sentenced to incarceration. This lesson explains the history and purpose of probation and parole, including the difference between the two.


In the United States, there are more offenders serving criminal sentences outside of prisons and jails than there are serving time inside prisons and jails. How can that be?

Probation and parole programs are known as community supervision. This simply means the offender is allowed to live as a part of his or her community, and will be overseen by an officer. Community supervision is an alternative to incarceration.

Let's start by looking at probation. Probation is a sentence of community supervision for a set period of time given instead of incarceration. Generally speaking, it's a type of criminal sentence done without serving time in a prison or jail.

The offender is usually given a prison sentence, but then that sentence is 'suspended' during the term of probation. The offender is overseen by a probation officer and must display good behavior during the probation period. Probation usually comes with several requirements that will be unique to the offender. For example, a drug offender might be required to complete a drug treatment program and submit to regular urinalysis tests to ensure he or she remains drug-free. Most probationers are required to check in regularly with their probation officers, and all are required to refrain from further criminal behavior while on probation.

As long as the requirements of probation are met, the offender will remain free in the community. However, if the offender doesn't comply, he or she risks having probation revoked by the judge. If probation is revoked, the offender will be sent to serve the original prison sentence.

For example, let's say Bonnie is convicted of burglary and sentenced to five years in prison. The judge suspends the sentence and places Bonnie on probation for three years. If Bonnie's probation is revoked, Bonnie will serve the five-year prison sentence.

History of Probation

Probation is the most common type of sentence, with over four million people on probation in the U.S. But those four million people started with just one.

In 1841, a Boston cobbler convinced the Boston Police Court to release a drunk and disorderly offender into his custody, rather than sending the offender to prison. The cobbler successfully rehabilitated the offender and convinced the court to release more offenders into his supervision. Probation was born!

Almost 40 years later, Massachusetts was the first state to pass a law authorizing probation. The law required an official state probation system and instituted paid probation officers. By 1900, several other states also had laws authorizing probation.

These days, probation is authorized in every state. It's a useful tool for many different reasons. Experts believe probation:

  • Alleviates prison overcrowding
  • Saves criminal justice resources
  • Saves taxpayer money
  • Contributes to the rehabilitation of offenders


Now let's take a look at parole. Parole is a type of community supervision used when an offender receives an early release from prison or jail. Many people confuse probation and parole. Just remember that parole only applies when the offender has already served a portion of his or her sentence. Think of it this way: an offender can't be sentenced to parole; however, an offender can be sentenced to probation. Or, here's a memory trick: 'prison' and 'parole' go together, because they each have six letters.

The U.S. Parole Commission governs the parole process for all prisons. The Commission sets out certain conditions that must be met before an offender can be granted parole. They are:

  • The offender followed prison rules
  • The offender's release doesn't belie the seriousness of the crime
  • The offender's release doesn't disrespect the criminal justice system
  • The offender's release doesn't jeopardize public safety

For example, let's say Bonnie is serving her five-year prison sentence. Bonnie is released on parole after serving only three years. Bonnie will complete the remaining two years on parole. This means she'll be on community supervision and overseen by a parole officer. Like probation, parole usually comes with many requirements and can be revoked if Bonnie doesn't comply with the requirements.

History of Parole

There are over 850 thousand people supervised on parole in the U.S. But parole didn't originate here.

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