Although there are substantial differences, people will sometimes confuse parole and probation because of the similarities. In the state of California, probation can be one part of a sentence that a person receives when that person is convicted of a crime.

Probation is ordered by a judge. Parole, in contrast, must be approved by a parole board after a parole hearing, and it may be granted only to those who are already serving a criminal sentence behind bars – if they qualify.

Both parolees and probationers agree to abide strictly by the terms and conditions of parole or probation. Both penalties usually involve living and working (or attending school) in the community and visiting a parole or a probation officer routinely.

The typical conditions and terms of both parole and probation include random drug and alcohol testing, avoiding criminal contacts and acquaintances, and finding and maintaining employment or attending school.

In California, there are two ways that probation can be served: “formally” and “informally.” The main difference is the amount and type of supervision that a probationer receives, although informal probation is typically a penalty for misdemeanors, and formal probation is usually a penalty for those convicted of felonies.

You are not alone, however, if you find the terminology confusing. In California law, the term “conditional sentence” means informal probation. Lawyers and judges also refer to informal probation as “summary probation” or “court probation.”

What distinguishes informal probation from formal probation is that under informal probation, there are no probation officers. The probationer reports instead to the court and is only obligated to report a change of address or a new arrest and criminal charge.

When an offender is placed on formal probation, a probation officer supervises that offender directly. The offender reports weekly or monthly to the officer, and sometimes even more frequently. If the probationer complies with the conditions of formal probation, he or she may eventually be placed on informal probation.

WHAT ACTS ARE CONSIDERED VIOLATIONS OF PROBATION?

In California, probation violations include leaving the county or state without permission; failure to appear in court; failure to pay court-ordered fines or fees; failure to complete court-ordered counseling, treatment, classes, or community service; failure to stay employed; failure to pass an alcohol or drug test; failure to keep a scheduled meeting with a probation officer; possession of contraband items; violating a restraining order or a protective order linked to domestic violence; associating with known criminals (or with minors if convicted of a sex crime involving a minor); or any breach of California law except a minor traffic violation.

A noncompliant probationer may be arrested, and a “VOP” (violation of probation) hearing is then conducted. In southern California, anyone who is facing a VOP charge will need the help of an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney.

Probationers are already convicted, so a VOP charge does not require a prosecutor to provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Also at a VOP hearing, there is no right to a jury trial.

If a “preponderance of the evidence” indicates to a judge that a violation of probation has occurred, that judge will convict the defendant of VOP. The judge then may revoke the probation and place the offender in jail or prison for the length of the original sentence. A judge might also simply modify the terms of the probation or merely fine the offender – depending, of course, on the details of the probation violation.

HOW DOES PAROLE WORK IN CALIFORNIA?

Parole is granted only after a convicted inmate has served part of his or her sentence in prison. Most California prison inmates serve what is called a “determinate sentence,” meaning that the sentence runs for a precise amount of time.

Let’s say that someone is sentenced to six years in prison. That is a determinate sentence, although the actual time served may be less if the inmate receives credit for good behavior. An “indeterminate” sentence is for an indefinite amount of time – for example, three-to-five years or 25 years-to-life.

California inmates may receive “good time credit” (also called “work time credit”) that allows them to reduce the length of their sentences. Currently, due to overcrowding and budget cuts, most California inmates can earn “day for day” credit, so conceivably someone who is given a determinate sentence of ten years could be released in five. However, California inmates convicted of violent felonies may not be paroled before serving at least 85 percent of the length of their sentences.

What is considered a violent felony? First-degree burglary, rape, and lewd acts on a minor under 14 (that is, child molestation) are considered violent felonies. Inmates convicted of murder, and inmates previously convicted and incarcerated for at least two or more previous felonies, cannot earn good time credit and must serve their full determinate sentences before they can qualify for parole.

WHAT IS THE BOTTOM LINE REGARDING PAROLE IN CALIFORNIA?

In California, parole is never automatic for any inmate. The state of California will only parole a particular inmate when the state is persuaded that the inmate is prepared to return – constructively and positively – to his or her community. The state’s sentencing rules merely establish the earliest possible date that the Board of Parole Hearings will consider an inmate’s release.

Parole officers (sometimes called parole “agents”) supervise parolees in California. Parole officers are assigned to protect the public by facilitating the successful re-entry of parolees into their communities. Parole agents work for the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation and report to that department’s Board of Parole Hearings. They also help parolees arrange for housing, employment, healthcare, and counseling.

Parole laws have changed frequently in California and will continue to change. Some laws apply only to inmates convicted before 1983, for example, or after 1977. The details can sometimes be baffling. If you are being charged with any crime in Southern California, or if you’ve been convicted of a crime in this state, consider speaking with an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney who can ensure that you are receiving every legal right and privilege that is rightfully yours. If you need defense representation, or if you simply need sound legal advice regarding probation or parole in California, let an Orange County criminal defense attorney help.