What is probation?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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For all practical purposes, probation is a sentence ordered by a judge, usually instead of, but sometimes in addition to, serving time in jail. It allows the convicted person to live in the community for a specified period of time, sometimes under the supervision of a probation officer. Technically, some jurisdictions do not consider the grant of probation, but the deferment or “suspension” of sentencing, or the Court may actually sentence the defendant to state prison, but suspend the “execution” (ie, the carrying out) of the sentence, and place the defendant on probation. The real essence of probation is the continued power of the Court over the defendant. Without probation, the defendant might be sentenced to a maximum jail term of one year on a misdemeanor for example. From then on, the defendant’s only obligation to the criminal justice system is to serve his year. When he gets out, he is free of all obligations, conditions, and supervision. Courts don’t like that, so even if the judge is determined to send the accused to jail, he usually prefers a probationary sentence so that if the defendant misbehaves in any way, he can be re-sentenced and put back in jail. As an example, if on a misdemeanor carrying a maximum of one year in jail, the judge grants probation on the condition that he serves 11 months in jail, the defendant is  better off refusing probation and serving the maximum of one year. The judge cannot do any more to him than that. Yes, the defendant has to AGREE to probation.

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