What is Probation in Criminal Cases?

Probation is an alternative sentence in the United States criminal justice system.  Many offenders are exposed to the possibility of jail or prison as penalties for their criminal cases, but probation is a way for an offender to remain in the community and go about their life without being jailed as long as they follow their probation requirements.  In some cases, a judge may impose a short jail sentence with the remainder of the jail suspended on the condition that probation is successfully completed.

Do You Always Have a Probation Officer?

Probation can be supervised or unsupervised.  In more minor cases such as petty offenses and misdemeanors, probation can be unsupervised.  This means that the offender will not be directly supervised by a probation officer, but they must still fulfill certain conditions required by the court, such as completing community service or payment of restitution.

Supervised probation is where the offender is actively monitored during their probationary period by a probation officer.  A probation officer may be a government employee that works for the municipality or county, but they can also be a private contractor.  In any case, they will oversee the progress of the offender to make sure they are leading a law-abiding life as well as completing any requirements of probation.

What is the Purpose of Probation?

Generally, courts view probation as rehabilitative.  This means that the goal of probation is to keep the offender law abiding, and a productive member of society.  With this in mind, many restrictions can be put in place that an offender must comply with in order to succeed on probation.  Here are some common court requirements that probation officers may enforce:

-drug and alcohol treatment

-monitored sobriety

-completion of community service hours

-anger management treatment

-mental health treatment

-payment of fines and court costs

-payment of restitution

-life skills or parenting classes

-driving classes

-driving restrictions

-keeping appointments and check-ins

-no new offenses.

-forfeiture of weapons

-full time employment or schooling

Often, when a person is sentenced to probation, they may be ordered to complete evaluations to determine whether or not the offender may benefit from counseling or treatment.  These treatment programs relate to the charged offense that the offender has pleaded guilty to.  For example, if an offender is on probation for a DUI case, they will usually be required to be sober on probation, and attend regular alcohol or substance abuse classes.  If a person commits a domestic violence offense and gets sentenced to probation, they may have to complete anger management or domestic violence classes and show proof to their probation officer.

What if Probation is Revoked?

As mentioned earlier, probation is an alternative sentence to incarceration.  Successful completion of probation typically results in the offender avoiding jail.  However, if an offender struggles to fulfill requirements on probation or violates the terms of their probation, they face a revocation of probation and can be resentenced to jail, if a judge is so inclined.  If, for example, the probationer on a DUI case gets caught with alcohol or drugs in their system pursuant to a random drug test, the probation officer can file a motion with the court asking that probation be revoked, or modified.  Upon a revocation of probation, the offender faces a sentence to the original charge they pleaded guilty to.  Revocation is not necessarily automatic.  If an offender has had a recent bad stretch of compliance but has otherwise succeeded in his requirements, perhaps his probation will be extended rather than revoked.

Probation is typically available as a sentencing option for most lower-level crimes, including some felonies.  However, if an offender has a long criminal history, they may not be the best candidate for probation supervision.  Similarly, if an offender has a history of being placed on probation and not completing it successfully, a judge may not be inclined to grant them the benefit of probation again, even for a low-level crime.

How Long is Probation?

Probation terms are usually set periods of time.  For a misdemeanor offense, probation may last 12 months or less.  For a felony offense, probation may last several years.  Some special categories of crimes, such as sex offenses, may require lifetime supervision on probation.  If an offender is doing particularly well on probation, it is possible that they can be terminated earlier than the original set term.

Communication between the offender and probation officer is very important for success.  Sometimes the offender is unclear what he or she is supposed to be doing on probation, and some probation officers aren’t the best at explaining the requirements, or have such a heavy case load that they don’t explain everything they should to the offender.  These can lead to an offender not fulfilling their requirements.  The offender is ultimately responsible for making sure they fulfill all of their requirements on probation.  Typically, offenders have to sign a “terms and conditions” sheet which explains in writing what specific requirements an offender must fulfill, and this document is on file with the court.

What’s the Difference Between Probation and Parole?

Probation is different than parole.  “Parole” describes the supervision of a convicted felon after the offender has completed a prison sentence.  Probation is a prison alternative.  It is a way for a person to complete their sentence avoiding incarceration altogether.

If you or a loved one have more questions about probation, give the criminal defense attorneys at Hebets & McCallin.  We can help!


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