What Happens On Probation
I’m willing to bet that those of you who regularly visit this site haven’t been on probation and may never find yourself on probation. I do have many people who stumble across this corner of the internet from google searches about addiction, recovery, mental health, etc., however, so I thought it might be a good idea to recount my own experiences on the matter. Some of you may also have friends or family members who get placed on probation, so in an attempt to help educate about these things, here is an overview of what happens on probation.
What is probation?
Probation allows someone who has broken the law to remain in the community depending on their continued good behavior, rather than going to jail. The first thing to understand is that there are two main categories of probation — supervised and unsupervised. I’ve been on both (ha).
- Unsupervised: without even knowing what happens on probation, you can guess that this is the preferred choice. Rather than sentence you to jail, a judge may place a person on unsupervised probation, meaning that they don’t have to physically check in with probation officers, but that they still need to adhere to laws and carry out specified stipulations such as community service, paying court fees, etc. If someone commits a crime or does anything to violate the conditions of probation, it is then up to the judge to either extend probation, change the terms, or potentially enforce jail time.
- Supervised: this is a much more rigorous type of probation involving regular check-ins with an assigned probation officer. Depending on the conditions of the probation, this may include regular drug testing, paying fees, being required to hold a job, home checks by the officer, and other accountability measures. You will not be able to leave the state without written approval of your probation officer.
What happens on probation (my experiences)
My first experience with probation was after receiving a DWI (driving while intoxicated). My sentence was what was known as a “PBJ,” or “probation before judgement.” This meant that rather than serving jail time, I was placed on a year of unsupervised probation. Once that year was up, if I had adhered to laws and not violated my probation, I was released from the system. In my particular case, I was also required to go to a drug/alcohol program and present documentation to the court. I completed that year with no issues and was released from probation.
My second experience was much more intense. I had three separate charges against me for my role in the thefts from the pharmacy where I worked. For two of them, I was sentenced to 18 months each, but both sentences were suspended. For the third, I was sentenced to five years and all was suspended except for one year. That means that I had to serve one year in jail for those three offenses. If you’re keeping track, that means that in total I was sentenced to eight years in jail, with all suspended except for one.
In addition, after I served my year of jail time (which actually only ended up being nine months), I was sentenced to five years of supervised probation. This meant that if I broke the law or did anything to violate the conditions of my probation within those five years, I may end up having to serve the remaining seven years of my sentence that had been suspended (at the discretion of the judge).
What made my five years of supervised probation even more stressful were the number of times I needed to move and therefore transfer my probation from one state to another. In those five years, I moved from Maryland to Virginia to Illinois, so I needed to go through a long procedure of approval and then transition from one place to the next. I also may have been able to have been released early from probation given my exemplary track record, but because with each transfer I had to establish a new relationship with a new officer, it set back my progress each time.
Supervised visits started off more frequently until it became apparent that I would show up and was reliable. Then they were spread out further apart and I was given a little more leeway. I had random drug tests when I would show up, which required that the officer be present with me in the bathroom while I gave a urine sample. They also had to watch me to make sure that I was providing my own urine and not trying to cheat the system. Given the strip searches that were a part of jail life, that wasn’t quite so bad.
I had to attend 12-step meetings as a condition of my probation, so I would have to bring slips signed by the secretary at those meetings to prove that I had gone. I also had to pay probation fees. The check-ins were mainly to make sure that I was on track, still employed, not using again, and completing my community service. Anytime I wanted to leave the state to visit family or go on a trip, I needed to give them detailed information about where I was staying and carry with me an approval letter in case I got into any trouble with the law where I was going. This was, of course, if I got approval to go at all, which was under the officer’s discretion.
Thankfully, I established good rapport with my officers and I was even allowed to leave the country to go on our honeymoon in 2014. On the unfortunate side, we had a trip planned for India right after we moved to Chicago, and their probation department was much less lenient, which I can’t blame them for considering they had never met me. I still remember where I was when I was told on the phone that there was no way I was going on that trip because I was “a criminal who was still in jail, but being allowed to live outside of a cell.” I was nearing the end of my probation sentence at that time and to still hear those words was really demoralizing, especially given the amount of time and energy I had put in to giving back and turning my life around.
I can understand how probation officers can become jaded over time, given the amount of recidivism, violations, and lack of respect from some offenders. It’s a hard job and it makes sense that trust would have to be earned vs. immediate. Still, for someone who is trying to turn their life around, it’s just another obstacle to achieving that. Nevertheless, I made it through those five years of check-ins, drug tests, adhering to laws, home visits, and just a general anxiety that I wasn’t in full control of my life. That officers could show up or do things whenever they felt like it was something that loomed over me on a daily basis, even though I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
I was released from supervised probation on May 10, 2016 and it was such a freeing feeling. I felt like I was in control again and didn’t need permission to live my life.
Those were my experiences of what happens on probation. It’s important to note that the conditions of probation will be different for everyone, but those were mine. Make sure to check your state for the specifics of probation in your area. While the details may be different, the basic ideas around supervised vs. unsupervised are the same everywhere.
Did you know what happens on probation? Hopefully this was helpful for those of you who need it!