A Word About Probation
“I’ll just get probation. . . ”
Many people, especially young people, go to court to face criminal charges with the attitude that “I’ll just get probation.”
There are many cases in which a probation term is a great outcome. Probation can often help people get a new start after the trauma of a criminal charge. “Probation” means that as punishment, you must obey certain conditions for a specified period of time. If you do so successfully, then at the end of the time period your punishment is over, probation is over, and you are free to go on with your life without government intrusion. Conditions might include drug testing, AA or NA meeting attendance, counseling, a curfew, an order to stay away from certain people or places, or other requirements depending upon your case.
But, while many first-time offenders are sentenced to probation, it is not the “free ride” many, especially young people, think it is.
It is not unusual for a person sentenced to probation to violate what are often very demanding probation terms. Even “technical” violations, like missing a curfew or not notifying the Probation Department of your new home or work address, can cause serious problems.
Furthermore, if you are placed on probation and you violate one of its terms, or if you are charged with a new criminal offense, you may find yourself punished for that violation or new offense before you know what has happened to you. It is important to note that for a probation violation there is no jury; a judge decides if a violation has occurred.
The violation does not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Many of the familiar constitutional rights do not apply. Sometimes hearsay is admissible against you, which means there are no live witnesses to cross-examine, only reports or letters accusing you.
If a judge finds that it is “more likely than not” that you violated some term of probation or committed a new offense, then the judge can, immediately, change the sentence from probation to incarceration. That means jail.
What’s more, you can be sentenced to jail for a probation violation, and it won’t matter if you are found not guilty of the charge that formed the basis for the violation. Once you are sentenced for violating probation, you will have to serve that entire sentence, regardless of what happens with the new charge.
Probation, especially for young people, is not a “free ride.” It can be onerous and can set you up for failure and more severe punishment.
Probation can be a great way to resolve a difficult situation, and many people are successful probationers and go on with their lives. But it is important to know what you are getting into, what could happen if you make a mistake, and what your other options are.
If you are going to court in Massachusetts to face a criminal charge, even if you think, “I’ll just get probation,” don’t go alone. You need an experienced criminal defense lawyer to defend you and your rights, advise you about your options, and to ensure that you are not being set up for serious consequences down the road.