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What do Khloe Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Mel Gibson, Nick Nolte, Chris Brown, Hugh Grant, Snoop Dogg, Shia LaBeouf, and Michelle Rodriguez have in common?
They are all celebrities who know what it means to be on probation in the criminal justice system.
Being on state or federal probation, or on supervised release in the federal system, is challenging. To be sure, it is better than jail or prison for most everyone. But there are significant rules to follow, and the risks are high. For example, at any time during a period of probation or supervised release, the court may issue a warrant for a person’s arrest for violating any of the conditions of probation. That means a person on probation is living under significant pressure.
Generally, what does it mean to be “on probation?”
On probation means a person is under the supervision of a state or federal probation officer for a court-ordered period of time. The probation officer advises the person, monitors compliance with all the court rules, and lets the court know if a violation requires court intervention.
A period “on probation” can last months and years under the supervision of a state or federal probation officer. It is usually the last step in the journey through the criminal justice system, and a person’s future and freedom are on the line.
Indeed, in the federal system, we are aware of extraordinary cases in which people have received lifetime supervised release, which means they will be under the supervision of a probation officer for the rest of their lives.
Moreover, when even a single violation can cost someone their freedom and cause them to return to jail or prison, the stakes are incredibly high.
Pro-Tip: Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, regularly helps clients through all aspects of the criminal justice process, including supervised release and probation. When there is a possible violation, Prison Professors can help people mitigate the consequences and obtain better outcomes.
What Are The Differences Between “Probation” And “Supervised Release?”
As far as terminology, let’s clarify the differences between probation and supervised release in the federal system. Let’s also clarify how the states refer to probation in their criminal justice process.
In the federal system, probation is a substitute for a prison sentence. A judge can impose a probation sentence by itself, or as an add-on to home detention or house arrest.
By contrast, supervised release is a term of supervision a judge imposes in addition to a prison sentence. The period of supervised release is at the end of a federal prison sentence. Stated differently, supervised release is an additional term of supervision that a person completes after completing their term of federal custody.
All states generally provide judges some options for sentencing someone to probation instead of jail or prison in appropriate cases, in which case the person is said to be “on probation.” Also, after incarceration, most states allow for a period of release under the supervision of a probation officer. That is also a period “on probation.”
Finally, some states also have unsupervised probation.
Pro-Tip: In all criminal cases, people should consult experienced legal counsel regarding their court cases. Probation rules and practices vary by state, and people should consult local counsel in the jurisdiction where they are to serve a period of probation.
What Is Considered A Probation Violation?
Failure to follow the conditions of probation is considered a probation violation. Activities considered probation violations include failure to pay fines or restitution, failure to report to a probation officer, failure to appear in court and travel out of state without probation’s approval.
The range of consequences for a probation violation goes from a warning to loss of travel privileges and even return to jail or prison and revocation hearings.
Judges set the terms and conditions of probation or supervised release at sentencing. Most jurisdictions and districts have standard probation or supervised release conditions that judges incorporate in their sentencing. A probation violation occurs when the defendant fails to comply with those terms and conditions.
What Are The Most Common Probation Violations?
The most common probation violations include:
- Missing court or probation meetings.
- Failing to pay fines or restitution.
- Failing drug and alcohol tests.
- Failing to maintain employment.
- Incomplete community service.
- Unapproved associations with felons.
- Crossing state lines.
- Committing a new crime.
Pro-Tip: Complying with the terms of probation and supervised release is an integral part of a person’s sentence. We encourage people to follow their conditions of probation and supervised release to the letter. Above all, maintaining clear lines of communication with a probation officer is key to success while on probation and supervised release.
Most Common Probation Violations Explained
Let’s review each of these most common probation violations. Note that probation officers can report probation violations to the court and are required to do so in some circumstances.
Missing court or probation meetings.
People on supervised probation will be required to meet with their probation officers on a regular basis. Missing a scheduled appointment with the probation officer is considered a probation violation. While missing a single meeting due to unforeseen circumstances or miscommunication is unlikely to land a person automatically in jail, repeatedly missing scheduled appointments with probation is another matter and one that is best to avoid.
Likewise, when a person on probation has court dates and hearings to attend, failure to attend can violate the terms of their probation.
Failing to pay fines or restitution.
Failure to pay fines and restitution on the payment schedule set by the court is a serious probation violation. People can even face charges for a new criminal offense based on failure to pay fines or restitution.
Failing drug or alcohol tests.
The terms of probation or supervised release usually require people to remain sober. Failing a drug test (or alcohol test, if applicable) could lead to negative consequences. A person on probation must adhere to all federal and state laws, including not using illegal substances.
Failing to maintain employment.
Seeking and maintaining employment (and/or enrolling in school) are typically required conditions of probation or supervised release. A person failing to seek or maintain a job can be considered a probation violation.
Incomplete community service.
A person sentenced to community service is required to complete a mandatory number of hours within a given period of time, and failing to do so constitutes a probation violation.
Unapproved associations with felons.
A person’s term of probation or supervised release could require staying away from specific people or places, primarily if they are associated with criminal activity. For example, people convicted of a criminal conspiracy are often required to refrain from communicating with co-conspirators. Also, regardless of the type of case, when someone is convicted of a felony, they must not knowingly communicate or interact with other felons without first getting the permission of their probation officer.
A final note on associating with someone who has a record, which sometimes implicates close friends and family. The court can prevent people on probation or supervised release from associating with known felons even if they are a girlfriend, boyfriend, fiancee, uncle, etc. This happens when the judge or probation officer has reason to believe that such associations may hamper a person’s rehabilitation efforts and live crime-free. Failure to comply will expose people to possible fines or additional time in jail for committing this violation.
Pro-Tip: Communication is vital! Sometimes, by establishing clear communications with probation, people can overcome particular association issues. As in all things regarding probation or supervised release, one of the main ingredients for success is good communication between the defendant and their probation officer.
Unapproved Travel/Crossing state lines.
Once on probation, a person receives more freedom to move around. Nonetheless, travel outside state lines can be limited and often requires notice to, or even the consent of, a person’s probation officer.
While most people on probation know they cannot leave the country, many are not as careful about crossing state lines. For example, people living on the border between states, in tri-state metropolitan areas, need to pay special attention and communicate with their probation officers about their every move. In some cases, with approval, a person can be permitted to travel across state lines to work, visit with family, or see a specific doctor.
Committing a new crime.
It is always a fundamental condition of probation that the defendant stays clear of further brushes with the law. Committing another crime while on probation or supervised release is among the most serious probation violations. Catching new charges is one of the most likely ways to land back in prison while on probation.
Even a minor traffic infraction is considered a probation violation that should be reported to the probation officer and dealt with. A probation officer should learn of a traffic stop from the defendant rather than from law enforcement. Isolated instances of minor traffic violations do not have to escalate to time in jail when the person involved is upfront and transparent with their probation officer.
Pro-Tip: The law requires that “the defendant shall notify the Probation Officer within 72 hours of being arrested or questioned by a law enforcement officer.” For example, we recommend that when a person receives a traffic citation they send their probation officer an email with the details. A more serious interaction with law enforcement should require legal counsel.
Click here for our video: Back to Federal Prison for Violating Probation.
A Famous Probation Violation Case: Meek Mill
Rapper Meek Mill famously received a prison sentence of two to four years in prison for probation violations. Mill had already faced the court multiple times on various probation violations but had not been sentenced to an additional prison term for such violations. The sentencing judge said the rapper and entertainer wasted several opportunities to clean up his act after a 2009 gun and drug case in Philadelphia.
Mill was ultimately sent back to serve additional prison time for multiple probation violations that included failed drug tests, failure to comply with a court order restricting his travel, and two unrelated arrests. Eventually, Mills pressed his luck one too many times with the judge. In fact, the sentencing judge took the rare step of ignoring the prosecutor, who recommended that Mill not be imprisoned for the violations.
Going to jail or prison for a probation violation is not inevitable or automatic. People often ask if they will automatically go to jail after any probation violation. After a probation violation, a person will automatically go to jail if the violation is severe enough, for example, in a case involving violence.
Going to jail immediately after a probation violation will depend on the nature of the violation and the circumstances of the person’s case. For example, even a minor violation could result in jail time if it is not the first time the person commits a serious probation violation. On the other hand, a person who has remained in good standing while on probation or supervised release may avoid going to jail for a technical violation. In the case of Meek Mill, the judge noted multiple instances of serious violations that ultimately led him back to prison.
In some states, certain violations of probation or supervised release are considered technical, and others are considered substantive. Committing a new crime is almost always a substantive violation of probation or supervised release. Other conduct technically violates the terms and conditions of probation but is less severe than committing a new crime. In such cases, probation officers exercise their discretion regarding possible consequences.
The list of technical violations is similar across most states and includes items we are familiar with, such as:
- visiting people or places prohibited by the terms of probation;
- failing to pay restitution and fines;
- missing court-ordered counseling sessions
- failing to complete community service hours;
- leaving the state without permission;
- missing appointments with a probation officer;
- positive tests for drugs or alcohol;
- failing to maintain employment or attend school.
Remember that just because some jurisdictions refer to these as “technical violations” does not in any way mean that the probation officer or the sentencing court will take them lightly and are not subject to significant consequences or penalties.
A final note about technical violations. When on probation or supervised release, people must take sufficient care and time to clarify what is expected and not take chances. For example, many people have a probation term prohibiting alcohol in their home, but they live with a family that enjoys a glass of wine every night. Another common probation condition is avoiding places that serve alcohol. What if the person goes to a restaurant that has a separate bar? Or a BYOB restaurant? What if the person is a waitress and has a job offer at such a restaurant? It is crucial to ascertain how the probation officer addresses such situations well before they become a problem. That requires clarification and communication.
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Probation and supervised release offer people the opportunity to rebuild their lives in the community and to demonstrate to the court that they can live law-abiding and productive lives despite a criminal conviction. Steering clear of some common violations is the best option.