What is Probation and How Does it Work?

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If you’ve been convicted of a crime, you’d almost certainly rather complete your sentence at home, instead of behind bars – which is possible if you’re sentenced to probation.

While probation is considered the preferred alternative to incarceration, it still involves serious restrictions. Plus, failure to follow the rules can result in a punishment more severe than the original potential prison time.

If you’ve been sentenced to probation or know someone who has, it’s important to understand how the process works, so you can complete it successfully and regain your full freedom.

Here’s a closer look at everything you need to know.

What is Probation?

Probation allows the offender to avoid spending time in prison or jail.

Instead, they’re allowed to spend time either in their personal home, a group home, or a rehab facility. Mandated time spent in rehab is common in cases involving drugs and alcohol.

Generally, probation is most commonly granted for non-violent, minor crimes. It’s issued to first-time offenders, minors, and others who aren’t considered a threat to public safety.

However, probation isn’t always an option in the criminal justice system. Certain felonies mandate incarceration, even for first-time offenders.

Additionally, past convictions can limit the probationer’s ability to appeal for probation in their current case.

Who is Involved?

Probation requires the coordination of several parties. If you’re on probation, it’s important to understand what each one does.

  1. Court: The judge determines the parameters of the probation. They’ll set all the specific rules about where the offender can live, what activities they can engage in, and other behaviors.
  2. Probationer: “Probationer” is the term for the person on probation. They’re also often referred to as the “offender.”
  3. Probation Officer: Probation officers are agents of the state or federal government assigned to investigate and supervise probationers. They report directly to the courts.

Conditions of Probation

Probation restrictions vary based on the offender’s history, type of crime committed, the judge’s discretion, the likelihood of recidivism, and other factors.

The goal is two-fold: To prevent a repeat of the offense and to prohibit the offender from associating with other people convicted of crimes.

First, the court will determine what’s considered “home” for probation purposes. It could be your house or apartment.

However, that can be an issue if you live with other people who have criminal records or if you’ve been convicted of domestic violence. 

In some cases, the judge might order you to move into a rehab center, group home, or some other type of facility.

Regardless of “home’s” location, your probation officer will have the right to enter and search it at their discretion, with no advanced notification required.

Other common probation restrictions include:

  • You can’t commit any new crimes (and must report any law enforcement interaction)
  • You can’t move without approval from the court
  • You must meet your probation office at their discretion
  • You can’t live without anyone else on probation or who has a criminal record
  • You might have a curfew or movement restrictions, such as only being allowed to go from home to work
  • Possession of drugs, alcohol, or sexual material might be prohibited
  • Possession of firearms and other types of weapons might be prohibited
  • You might need to wear an electronic monitoring device

Additionally, someone on probation might have to attend a variety of court-ordered programs, such as counseling or a rehabilitation program for substance abuse.

Costs of Probation

Probationers might also face financial penalties. The court could order you to pay restitution for any damage which occurred during the crime.

Additionally, you’ll likely have to pay for probation-related court costs, such as monitoring devices and drug tests. 

Types of Probation

There are several different types of probation.

1. State

If you break state law, the case is handled by the state’s court system.

All 50 states use probation for a variety of felonies and misdemeanors, and most sentences for a misdemeanor state crime range from six months to a year. Probationers are typically monitored either by the county’s probation office or a contractor. 

Felony probation typically lasts for a longer period of time and has far stricter regulations.

Because the crime is more serious, most sentences are at least 18 months but can reach five, 10, or even 25 years or more. Monitoring is handled by the state’s Department of Corrections.

2. Federal

On the federal level, probation for both felonies and misdemeanors is supervised by the US Probation and Pretrial Services System.

Officers are divided into two categories:

  • Pre-Sentence Investigation Units – They investigate the background of the probationer and recommend sentencing guidelines to the court.
  • Supervision Officers – They’re parole officers who work directly with probationers.

If you’re placed on federal probation, most of your interactions will then be with a Supervisory Officer. 

What Does a Probation Officer Do?

Here are two common beliefs you might have heard:

  • “Federal probation officers are far stricter than state probation officers.”
  • “State probation officers are far stricter than federal probation officers.”

Why are two contrasting beliefs both so popular?

Because federal probation officers have far more leeway in how they handle offenders, while violations on the state level require mandatory reporting to the courts.

Ultimately, an experience with a federal officer will vary based on many factors, including their personality, the type of crime, the type of probation violation committed, and more.

Probation officers perform more duties than many people realize.

First, they’ll typically verify your home and place of employment. They’ll likely make scheduled and unscheduled visits to both. If you don’t have a job, they’ll provide resources to help you find one.

Additionally, they ensure you attend all court-ordered meetings and programs. They also make sure you comply with any required drug testing. 

During probation, the officer will provide the court with progress reports. They’ll also notify the court if any violations occur.

Finally, the probation department may be called on to give the court an overall character assessment of the probationer.

Probation vs. Parole

Many people use the terms probation and parole interchangeably, but they’re actually different concepts:

  • Probation is when a convicted offender serves their sentence while living in the community.
  • Parole is when a convicted offender is granted a conditional release from prison, serving the remainder of their sentence in the community.

Like probation, parole isn’t a right. Instead, it’s a privilege, typically granted to inmates who have served a portion of their sentence in prison or jail without incident.

Additionally, parole is less common than probation. Of the total number of people in any type of community supervision program, 80% are on probation, and 20% are on parole.

The Parole Process

Parole is typically reserved for first-time offenders convicted of non-violent crimes. It’s rarely granted to someone found guilty of murder, rape, arson, or other violent offenses.

A state parole board grants or denies parole to inmates. They consider many factors about the inmate such as their age, family situation, behavior in prison, mental health, and criminal history.

The next step is a parole hearing. Members of the public are allowed to speak either for or against the inmate’s early release.

The inmate is also asked how they feel about their past actions and what plans they have for the future.

What Happens if You Violate Your Probation?

Violation of probation can lead to a wide range of potential consequences.

You might simply get a warning. However, this typically only occurs for minor violations.

For serious violations, your probation officer will report you to the court, which can order you to appear for a hearing.

If you’re found guilty of violating your probation, potential penalties include:

  • Fines
  • Extended probation period
  • Community service
  • Stricter probation terms
  • Imprisonment

It’s entirely possible that you could wind up serving more prison or jail time than your original probationary sentence.

Frequently Asked Questions About Probation

Here are quick answers to common questions about probation.

What is Probation?

Probation is an alternative to imprisonment. The convicted offender is allowed to serve their sentence at a court-approved location such as their home or in a rehab facility.

What are the Conditions of Probation?

Restrictions vary but typically include no use of alcohol, no possession of illegal drugs, no contact with any convicted criminals, and other specifics determined by the court.

What are the Benefits of Probation?

For offenders, probation offers the opportunity to avoid jail or prison. In many cases, the offender can still see their family and continue to work.

Additionally, state and federal governments save money. Probation sentencing is far cheaper than incarceration.

Does Probation Have Disadvantages?

If the probationer violates the conditions of probation, the penalties can end up much harsher than what the original prison sentence would have been.

Final Thoughts

A criminal conviction doesn’t necessarily result in the loss of your freedom. Probation allows you to continue living as a productive member of society.

However, the potential penalties can be severe. If you’re on probation, make sure you understand all the requirements and restrictions.

As long as you steer clear of violations, you can regain your freedom and resume your life in full.

About the author

After earning his MBA from Benedictine University, Ron was looking for a new challenge and stumbled on the idea of helping the formerly incarcerated.

Using what he learned, Ron developed this website as a free resource and has worked with his team​ to continue answering questions for those in need.

1 thought on “What is Probation and How Does it Work?”

  1. Upon release from prison at 62 years old, I discovered I had two social security numbers. I had only personally applied for one, at age 16. I was later adopted, but never applied for a new SS number under my adopted name. The two numbers are similar, leading me to believe the issue was caused by a transposition error somewhere. When I went to apply for my AZ drivers license, I was told NEITHER was valid! The need for a valid SS number is critical to gaining most employment AND the drivers license. I went to Social Security, but they want a driver’s license to prove identity, which I can’t get without a valid SS number! I found a low income job, because of lack of a SS #. And must bicycle long miles each day. All I want is to know is my valid SS number. SS offices and online help is jammed up, so I’m struggling to get the issue resolved! Any help would be appreciated. The email address is my 85 year old father’s.

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