Probation FAQ

Defendants with no prior criminal record or those convicted of low-level offenses are often candidates for misdemeanor or felony probation. Probation supervision comes with specific terms and conditions that a defendant must follow. 

Those found guilty in court face punishment. When it comes to sentencing in the criminal justice system, courts have a number of options available, including probation. Typically, courts impose probation sentences over prison time only in certain circumstances.

Below is a list of some of the more frequently asked questions about probation.

Frequently Asked Questions


What is probation?

Probation allows a person convicted of a crime the chance to remain in the community instead of going to jail. This alternative to incarceration requires that you comply with certain court-ordered rules and conditions under the supervision of a probation officer. You could qualify for unsupervised probation in some low-level offenses, such as misdemeanor criminal cases.

How long is a person on probation?

The amount of time you are on probation depends on the offense and laws of your state. Criminal defense lawyers often negotiate the terms and types of probation in plea agreements.

Typically, probation lasts anywhere from one to three years but can extend longer and even up to life depending on the type of conviction, such as sex offenses. In these cases, sex offenders can face geographic restrictions or have to register as sex offenders even after completing a prison sentence to ensure the safety of the community.

What are some examples of the terms or conditions of probation?

A person placed on probation is usually required to report to a probation officer and follow various conditions during the probation period. Typical conditions and terms of your probation may include:

  • Regular check-ins meeting with your probation officer
  • Appearing at any scheduled court appearances
  • Paying court costs such as supervision fees, fines, or restitution (money paid to victims)
  • Avoiding certain people and places (e.g., in a gang-related offense)
  • Not traveling out of state without the permission of your probation officer;
  • Obeying all laws and having no new crimes, even minor infractions such as jaywalking
  • No illegal drug use or excessive alcohol use
  • Submitting to random drug testing or alcohol testing
  • Refraining from using controlled substances unless prescribed by a doctor
  • Performing community service
  • House arrest or electronic monitoring

Typically, the conditions imposed relate to the type of criminal offense. For example, a judge may require you to attend a mental health or substance abuse treatment program for a drug-related offense.

Similarly, a judge may require someone convicted of a domestic violence offense to attend anger management classes or can order you to avoid specific people or group members, such as in a gang-related or battery type of offense.

What happens if I violate my probation?

Violations of probation occur when you break any of the rules or conditions set forth in the probation order at any time during the probation period. Your probation officer has the discretion to simply give you a warning for minor violations such as missing curfew.

Major violations, such as failure to complete a court-ordered program or a conviction for a new felony offense, require you to attend a probation violation hearing. If a judge determines that your violation was intentional and inexcusable, you may face:

  • Additional probation terms
  • Revocation of your probation
  • Heavy fines and/or jail time

What are my legal rights at a revocation hearing?

During a revocation hearing, the prosecuting attorney must show that you, more likely than not, violated a term or condition of your probation. You have a right to learn of any new charges against you and to present evidence in court that refutes the evidence brought against you. You may wish to consult with an attorney for legal advice regarding any defenses available to you in your particular state.

What happens if my probation is revoked?

If your probation gets revoked, it does not automatically mean a jail sentence. A judge has a variety of options available during sentencing. For instance, a judge may add an extra length to the probation period, impose additional fines, or require you to get counseling or attend other treatment programs. Alternatively, a judge may order you to spend a brief period of time in jail or require you to serve the time allotted on your original suspended sentence, depending on the circumstances.

Can I appeal a probation violation ruling?

Yes. In most states, you can appeal the ruling to the state's next highest court. Suppose the court finds that the lower court made an error or that there was insufficient evidence to support the revocation. In that case, you may have your probation violation dismissed.

What's the difference between probation and parole?

While parole is not the same as probation, there are similarities. Parole is a conditional release from prison that allows a prisoner to rejoin the community after serving all, or a part, of their prison term. Probation is an alternative sentencing order that allows a person convicted of a crime to remain out of jail altogether.

In both cases, a person must follow certain court-ordered terms and avoid getting into trouble with the law. Probation and parole violations occur when a person either breaks the rules or fails to comply with the terms of the probation or parole. Both violations carry significant consequences and penalties. The violator can return to jail if on parole, or get sent to jail if on probation. Especially if the violation is serious, such as obtaining a second driving under the influence (DUI) charge.

Can I ever shorten my time on probation?

In most states, you may apply for an early release from probation. It is entirely discretionary, but not mandatory, for a judge to allow early termination of probation. The judge will typically require you to serve at least a third of your probation. In addition, a judge may require you to have met all of the conditions of your probation, such as:

  • Completing a rehabilitation program
  • Verify all community service hours performed
  • Payment of court costs and fines

Get Legal Help with Your Probation Questions

If you're convicted of a crime, probation is far preferable to jail time. Whether it's available as a sentencing option will depend on the particular offense and your state's laws. Contact a local criminal defense attorney to discuss your case if you're facing criminal charges.

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