Probation is a sentence handed down to offenders in lieu of jail time. While on probation, the offender is allowed to continue living in the community as long as he follows the terms and conditions outlined by the judge or the probation officer to which he is assigned. Probation is often reserved for first time offenders who commit non-violent crimes, and requires frequent reporting to a probation officer. To explore this concept, consider the following probation definition.

Definition of Probation


  1. The method used to deal with first time offenders, or those guilty of minor crimes, by allowing them to remain in the community as long as conditions are followed.
  2. The state of having been conditionally released from custody.


1375-1425        Middle English probacion

What is Probation

Probation is a sentence handed down to criminal offenders that allows them to remain out of jail, under supervision, as long as certain specific guidelines are followed. When an offender is sentenced to probation, he must meet with an assigned probation officer on a regular basis, and must obey the conditions specified by the court. If the offender fails to adhere to the conditions, he risks being charged with violation of probation, and sent to jail.

History of Probation

Probation dates back to English common law, when the court had the authority to suspend an execution, while a convicted criminal appealed to the monarch for a pardon. In the United States, probation developed in 1841 when a Boston cobbler, named John Augustus, convinced a judge in the Boston Police Court to release a convicted offender to his care for a short time, with the goal of presenting the offender rehabilitated to the court in time for sentencing.

The first probation officer was recognized by U.S. courts in 1878, when the Mayor of Boston appointed a former police officer to the position. In the early 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court determined a problem with allowing judges to suspend sentences indefinitely. As a result, the National Probation Act of 1925 came into being. The Act allowed courts to suspend sentences of incarceration, placing offenders on supervised probation for a specified period of time. The U.S. Federal Probation Service was established that same year.

Probation Conditions

Probation conditions vary greatly depending on the jurisdiction, and by the offense of which the individual was convicted. Probation conditions also depend on whether probation is court-supervised (“informal probation”), or probation officer-supervised (“formal probation”).

Conditions for informal probation are often set by the judge, who has broad discretion in setting conditions. Most judges refer to statutory probation guidelines in setting conditions, however. Conditions for formal probation are set by the probation officer, using state and federal guidelines, though the judge may have input.

Common standard probation conditions include:

  • Payment of restitution and/or fines
  • Completing community service is ordered
  • Meeting with probation officer at scheduled times
  • Appearing in court as ordered
  • Submitting to random drug testing
  • Submitting to searches without a warrant
  • Avoiding places and people associated with criminal acts
  • Avoiding committing any crime, whether a felony or a misdemeanor

Common special probation conditions include:

  • Compliance with a house arrest program
  • Attending drug or alcohol treatment programs
  • Regular payment of all court-ordered child support or other family support obligations
  • Registering as a sex offender if required

Difference Between Probation and Parole

While both probation and parole offer supervision for individuals convicted of a crime, there are some basic differences. While probation is a sentence used in place of jail time, often used for first time and non-violent offenders, parole is supervised release of an individual who has already served jail or prison time.

Both probation and parole have the goal of rehabilitating offenders, and of keeping them out of jail or prison. In both cases, the offender is required to follow strict conditions, and to report on a regular basis to their assigned parole or probation officer. Probation is a sentence issued by the judge at trial. Parole may be granted only after a minimum amount of time in jail or prison has been served, and is granted at the discretion of the parole board.

Types of Probation

There are several types of probation that may be ordered for an offender. While probation is assigned with the goal of rehabilitating offenders, the judge may assign different types to suit each situation. The most commonly ordered types of probation include:

  • Unsupervised Probation – frees the offender from the direct supervision of a probation officer, while still requiring him to obey a specific court ordered condition. This is often reserved for less serious, non-violent crimes.
  • Supervised Probation –requires the offender to check in with a probation officer on a regular basis. This can range from weekly to monthly personal visits to mail reports, or phone calls.
  • Community Control Probation – requires the offender to remain in his home, his whereabouts monitored by an ankle tracking device. In some cases, the offender is allowed to leave the home to attend work or school.
  • Shock Probation – This consists of a defendant being sentenced to jail or prison for a short time. After the time period ends, the judge releases the defendant on probation. This is done in order to “shock” the defendant into following probation conditions.
  • Crime-Specific Probation – allows the judge to order specific conditions in order to help ensure the offender does not repeat the same crime. Possible crime-specific conditions may include attendance at a drug or alcohol rehabilitation, a prohibition against owning a computer or smartphone, or to go online, or to register as a sex offender.

Probation Officers

Probation officers work directly with offenders in order to supervise them, and to prevent them from committing additional crimes. Probation officers often work with dangerous criminals as they are assigned to field work, in which they frequently have to visit offenders at their homes or places of employment. Probation officers meet with their assigned offenders in order to keep up to date with their rehabilitation progress, and to determine whether or not the offenders are adhering to the conditions of their probation.

Federal Probation

Federal probation is a sentence only for offenders who commit federal offenses. The Office of Probation and Pretrial Services monitors federal probation, administering supervised release and probation according to federal laws. Federal probation officers have jurisdiction over federal felons, and they work to determine the risk to society of allowing an offender to remain free on probation, and to enforce conditions of probation. They also work closely with the courts in order to rehabilitate offenders.

Probation Violation

When a person commits an offense that violates the terms or conditions of his probation, it is considered a probation violation. The exact consequences for a probation violation vary depending on several factors, including the nature of the violation and the seriousness of the offense. Whether the offender has prior violations, and other circumstances may also play a part in the punishment. When probation is violated, an offender faces significant penalties, which may including serving out his original sentence behind bars.

Types of Probation Violation

State and federal laws govern probation violations and there are a number of ways in which probation can be violated. In general, the commission of any crime, regardless how minor, is considered a violation of probation. Failure to follow the terms and conditions of probation, exactly as they are specified, also constitutes a violation, even if the act is not considered a crime under other circumstances.

The most common types of probation violation include:

  • Failure to appear in court as ordered
  • Failure to report to, or meet with, an appointed probation officer as scheduled
  • Failure to pay fines or restitution, or failure to carry out community service as ordered
  • Associating with other offenders
  • Traveling out of the county or state without permission from the court or the probation officer
  • Possessing, using, or selling drugs
  • Being arrested for any reason

Consequences of Probation Violation

It is usually left up to the probation officer what will happen next. The officer may choose to issue a warning, or may require the violator to appear in court for a probation violation hearing. Typically, the officer considers the severity of the offense, and whether the offender has committed other violations, when determining the next course of action.

It is during such a hearing that a judge will consider evidence of the violation, presented by the prosecuting attorney. The probation officer then makes a recommendation as to how the violation should be handled. While the judge has broad discretion in imposing a sentence on a probation violation, it is common for the court to heavily consider the recommendation of the probation officer.

For Example:

Melissa was convicted of possession of a controlled substance. While the amount of the controlled substance was enough to make the crime a felony, this is the first time Melissa has been in trouble with the law. In an effort to give Melissa an opportunity to turn things around, he sentences her to two years in prison, which is suspended, pending successful completion of three years of supervised probation, and completion of a drug rehabilitation program.

About a year later, Melissa is found at a party with a bunch of her friends, all of whom are intoxicated in public.Not only is Melissa under the influence, which is a violation of the conditions of her probation, but she is in possession of 20 individual baggies of marijuana. While Melissa’s fall out of sobriety may have garnered a warning from her probation officer, the possession of drugs, especially drugs in a quantity and form for distribution, will likely find her in jail, awaiting a probation violation hearing.

In such a situation, Melissa’s probation, and therefore her suspended sentence, will likely be revoked, and she will be required to serve out her prison sentence.

Probation Cases

Probation is an option used by courts across the country every day, both to stem prison populations, and to allow offenders an opportunity to make changes in their lives that will keep them out of trouble.

Teen DUI Causes Four Deaths

On June 15, 2013, 16-year old Ethan Couch stole two cases of beer from Walmart, and then drove seven friends around in his father’s pickup. Couch was speeding on a dark road when he struck a stalled vehicle, and another parked car, killing a woman and her daughter, as well as two people helping the mother with her stalled car.

Upon his arrest, Couch had a blood-alcohol content of .024, three times the legal limit. The prosecution in the case asked the judge to sentence Couch to 20 years in prison for the incident. Instead, the juvenile court judge sentenced the teen to serve 10 years’ probation, and ordered him to enter rehabilitation.

The judge took into consideration a psychologist’s testimony during the trial, who argued that the teen was a product of his environment, and that he made poor choices due to the teachings of his parents that wealth earns privileges. The judge agreed that the teenager needed rehabilitation more than he did jail time. If he violates his probation at any time, he may be sentenced up to 10 years in prison.

Plea Bargain, Suspended Sentence, and Probation

On June 22, 2015, Thomas McPartlen and William Gartrell became involved in an altercation. During the fight, McPartlen cut Gartrell with a six-inch steak knife leaving several superficial wounds. McPartlen was arrested immediately for Second-degree Assault and Armed Criminal Action. The next month, McPartlen entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors, who agreed to reduce the charges to a misdemeanor assault, if he pled guilty.

According to the plea agreement, McPartlen would be sentenced to one year in jail, with a suspended sentence, and two years’ probation. The conditions also specified that McPartlen would be required to complete an Alternatives to Violence Program. If he fails to successfully complete the program, or if he violates his probation, he will be required to serve out his jail term.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony; generally those punishable by a fine, probation, community service, or imprisonment of less than one year.
  • Suspended Sentence – The delaying of a sentenced imposed after conviction for a crime, to allow a defendant to successfully serve a period of probation instead. If probation is violated, the individual is taken into custody to serve out the original sentence.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.