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Understanding Probation: What It Is and How it Works

A violation of probation is a serious offense that can result in a harsher punishment than if you never were placed on probation in the first place. Probation violations are common in the criminal justice system. Many times the State will use a violation of probation as leverage when a person commits another crime, or is accused of committing another crime. The standard of proof in a violation of probation hearing is much lower than that in a normal case. So it is an easy way for the State to keep a person in the system.

Also known as . . . “Just what exactly did I get myself into anyway?”

Probation is a sentence imposed by the court as an alternative to jail. As part of a probation sentence, an offender is released home, an approved residence, half way house or residential treatment facility. In return for the offender’s release, the offender agrees to abide by certain rules and follow specific guidlines. These restrictions are known as the offender's “conditions of probation.” The conditions are tailored to each person according to the crime charged. These are the most common conditions of probation:

violation of probation

  • Reporting monthly to a probation officer
  • Payment of Court Costs and Restitution
  • Drug Treatment
  • Counseling
  • You must not commit any new crimes
  • You must report any interaction with law enforcement
  • Curfews
  • You may not change your residence or leave the county without written permission from your probation officer.

More serious crimes may have stricter conditions. The conditions listed above are pretty standard for most crimes. As long as you abide by your conditions, and do not do anything wrong, you will remain out of jail until you complete all of your conditions of probation. Once you complete all of your conditions, your sentence will be over and you will be released from the probation. If you do not abide by all of your conditions, you will end up with a violation of probation.

Who Supervises State Probation, Federal Probation and Violent Crimes?

"Came on vacation. . . . left on probation…"

State Probation

If you break a state law, you can be placed on probation. Probation is available for both felony and misdemeanor offenses in all 50 states. Probation is usually used as the sole punishment for first time offenses or crimes that are not very serious. It is also used in conjunction with jail sentences for supervising people who have to pay restitution or for monitoring serious offenders who have strict conditions for their transition from jail to regular life.

Felony probation

Department of Corrections badge

In both the State and Federal system, felony probation is stricter than misdemeanor probation. If you are placed on felony probation for violating a state crime, you will be supervised by your state’s Department of Corrections. The typical felony probation sentence is at least 18 months in length. The probation period may last for the maximum amount of time allowed for your particular offense. So while 18 months is the usual minimum term, the maximum term for a probation sentence may be 5, 10 or 25 years.

Felony probation can be transferred from state to state if permission is given by the Department of Corrections. You need permission from both the state you want to leave, and the state you want to move to. However, if either state objects then you can not move until your probation sentence is completed.

Misdemeanor probation

If you are placed on misdemeanor probation for violating a state crime, you will most likely be supervised by the county’s probation office or a contractor for the county. The maximum probation sentence for a misdemeanor crime is usually one year. For some offenses it is only six months.

Misdemeanor probation is usually not able to be transferred. But there are procedures in place to allow a person to move out of the county or state. A common alternative is called “mail-in probation.” Mail in probation allows a person to report to a probation officer by mail instead of in person. Just because you are on mail in probation does not mean that you can not be violated. Any change in your address or place of residence must be allowed for, and approved, by the court.

Federal Probation

The U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System supervises probation at the federal level. This is true whether you are placed on felony or misdemeanor probation.

Federal Probation Officers are divided into two different systems The Pre-Sentence Investigation Units who conduct investigations into the background of defendants convicted of federal crimes and submit a sentencing recommendation to the presiding judge; and the Supervision Units who supervise individuals sentenced to probation. Supervision Officers also perform duties connected with federal parole.

The Supervision officers are given discretion in their supervision of their offenders. More so than those who are supervised by the Department of Corrections. This does not mean that probation in the federal system is easier. It just means that the probation officers may be able to give you a bit more leeway if you do something wrong. For example, if you have a positive drug test they may be able to let one slide in the Federal system whereas in the State system you would be violated. But even the Federal Supervision officers will uphold the law and violate you if you do not follow all the rules of your release.

Violent Felony Offenders

If you are a violent felony offender, the supervision will be even more intense. There will be extra conditions that you will need to comply with. The additional conditions that are usually imposed are

  • Reporting to your probation officer more than once a month
  • Counselingweapons probation violation
  • Drug testing
  • GPS monitoring
  • Curfews
  • No weapons
  • (In sex cases) no pornographic materials such as magazines or DVDs
  • Restrictions on individuals you may associate with
  • Registering your whereabouts with the local sheriff’s office

Whether you are supervised by the Department of Corrections, the county or the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System, you will need to report to your probation officer every month. You will have to pay a fee for this monthly reporting. In all cases, the probation officer is authorized to search your home or your person at any time. They can also request that you appear in the office for drug testing. You will be at your probation officer’s beck and call. If you do not comply with any conditions of your probation, no matter what type of probation it is, then you will be faced with a violation of probation. 

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