How Probation Works

by Gwen Case
Law enforcement officer interrogating Criminals male with handcuffs in the investigation room Police officer interviewing after committed a crime

Probation offers some people convicted of a crime an alternative to incarceration.

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If you know someone on probation or if you've been offered probation as part of a plea bargain, you may be wondering how these programs work.

What Is Probation?

Probation is a type of criminal sentence that allows a convicted person to avoid jail time. A judge will impose rules and conditions that the person on probation must follow.

While probation has obvious benefits for someone who wishes to avoid jail time, it's still a criminal sentence — probation results in a criminal record, legal obligations and consequences.

When placed on probation, a person gives up many rights and agrees to follow the terms and conditions imposed by the court. Violating the terms of probation can result in serious consequences or imprisonment.

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Reasons Someone Would Receive Probation as a Sentence

A person may receive probation if the judge believes it would better serve the interests of justice. Whether probation will be ordered varies by jurisdiction and the facts of each case. However, courts are more likely to order probation if:

The crime was minor. Crimes like shoplifting, drug possession and many misdemeanors may result in probation. However, judges can grant probation for more serious crimes as well.

The defendant has no criminal history. On the other hand, judges avoid ordering probation if they believe the probationer will violate the terms or commit additional crimes.

Substance abuse treatment or counseling is more appropriate than jail. In cases where a defendant is struggling with addiction or mental health concerns, the court may decide that treatment would benefit the defendant and society more than imprisonment.

The person is employed or has children. The court may be more inclined to order probation if a person is employed or is responsible for caring for children or other relatives.

There's no threat to a victim or the public. If a convicted person poses a danger, the court is unlikely to allow probation. For example, a judge may not allow probation for a domestic abuser who's likely to continue harassing the victim.

Prosecutors often offer probation as part of plea agreements, also known as plea bargains or plea deals. In these arrangements, the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for the promise of an easier sentence, such as no jail time. However, these agreements are subject to court approval. In some cases, a judge may be able to impose jail even if the prosecutor only asks for a probation sentence.

How Does Probation Work?

A probation sentence includes many terms and conditions, and the probationer must comply with all of these. The court will assign a probation officer to supervise the convicted person.

Terms of probation can differ significantly by case, but may include:

  • Drug or alcohol testing
  • Substance abuse or mental health treatment
  • Community service
  • House arrest
  • No new legal violations
  • No contact with victims in the case
  • Maintaining contact with the probation officer
  • Completing any court-ordered classes, such as anger management or parenting classes
  • Payment of court costs and restitution

Individuals on probation give up many rights. For example, probation officers are generally allowed to search the probationer's home or person without violating the Fourth Amendment. The probation officer is responsible for determining whether the person is following the court's orders.

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What Happens If a Person Violates Probation?

A probation officer or prosecutor may file a motion with the court to revoke probation if the probationer violates the terms and conditions. The court will then hold a hearing to determine whether a violation occurred.

The judge may sentence the person for the underlying crime if a probation violation occurred. The new sentence may restart probation, impose additional terms or include jail.

How Long Are People Typically on Probation?

Depending on the crime, probation can last from a couple of months to several years. More serious crimes tend to result in longer probation periods. In some cases, a person may receive an early termination of probation if they demonstrate good behavior and complete all the requirements quickly.

If you have questions or concerns about criminal sentencing or probation terms, speaking with a criminal defense attorney can help.

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