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Probation FAQ

When it comes to sentencing in the criminal justice system, courts have a number of options available, including probation. Typically, courts impose probation sentences only in certain circumstances and with specific terms and conditions that a defendant must follow. Below is a list of some of the more frequently asked questions about probation.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is probation?

A: Probation allows a person convicted of a crime the chance to remain in the community instead of going to jail. Probation requires that you comply with certain court-ordered rules and conditions under the supervision of a probation officer. Typical conditions may include performing community service, meeting with your probation officer, refraining from using illegal drugs or excessive alcohol, avoiding certain people and places, and appearing in court during requested times.

Q: How long is a person "on probation"?

A: The amount of time you are on probation depends on the offense and laws of your state. 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 drug or sex offenses.

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

A: A person who is placed on probation is usually required to report to a probation officer and follow a variety of conditions during the probation period. Specific conditions may include:

  • Regularly meeting with your probation officer at set times;
  • Appearing at any scheduled court appearances;
  • Paying fines or restitution (monies to victims);
  • Avoiding certain people and places;
  • Not traveling out of state without the permission of your probation officer;
  • Obeying all laws, including minor laws such as jaywalking;
  • Refraining from illegal drug use or excessive alcohol use; and/or
  • Submitting to drug or alcohol testing.

Typically, the conditions imposed relate to the type of criminal offense. For example, a judge may require you to submit to periodic drug testing or attend a drug rehabilitation program for a drug-related offense. Similarly, a judge may require that you avoid specific people or group members for a gang-related or battery type of offense.

Q: What happens if I violate my probation?

A: A probation violation occurs when you break any of the rules or conditions set forth in the probation order at any time during the probation period. When a potential violation is discovered, your probation officer has the discretion to simply give you a warning, or require you to attend a probation violation hearing. If a judge determines that you violated your probation, you may face additional probation terms, heavy fines, a revoked probation, jail time, or more.

Q: What are my legal rights at a revocation hearing?

A: During a revocation hearing, the prosecuting attorney must show that you, more likely than not, violated a term or condition of your probation. Generally, you have a right to learn of any new charges against you and to present evidence in court before a neutral judge that may support your case and/or refute the evidence brought against you. You may wish to consult with an attorney or other legal professional regarding the rights available to you in your particular state.

Q: What happens if my probation is revoked?

A: A revoked probation does not automatically mean you will be sent to jail. A judge has a variety of options available during sentencing. For instance, upon a revoked probation, a judge may add an extra length to the probation, 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 sentence, depending on the circumstances.

Q: Can I appeal a probation violation conviction?

A: Yes. In most states, you can appeal the ruling to the state's next highest court. If the court finds that the lower court erred, or that there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction, you may have your probation violation dismissed.

Q: What's the difference between probation and parole?

A: 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 his or her prison term. Probation, on the other hand, is a 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 procedures and avoid getting into trouble with the law. Probation and parole violations both occur when a person either breaks the rules or fails to comply with the terms of the probation or parole, including being arrested for another offense.

Both probation and parole violations carry significant consequences and penalties. The violator may be returned to jail (if on parole) or sent to jail (if on probation), if the lapse is serious.

Q: Can I ever shorten my time on probation?

A: In most states, you may apply for an early release from probation, yet it is entirely discretionary (not mandatory) for a judge to allow. Typically, a deciding judge will require you to have served at least a third of your probation before eligibility for early release. In addition, a judge may require all of the conditions of your probation be met, for example, rehabilitation classes completed, community service performed, and monies paid. Also, many states won't shortened probation for certain offenses such as DUI, sex crimes, and jail felonies.

Getting Legal Help with Your Probation Questions

If you've been 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. If you're facing criminal charges, don't waste any time before contacting a local criminal defense attorney to discuss your case.


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