Probation is the most common form of correctional punishment for criminal activity. It allows an offender to stay within the community, but under the supervision of a probation officer. Approximately 61 percent of convicted individuals are sentenced to probation. In 2002, there were 3,995,165 adults on probation in the United States.
A judge is never required by law to issue a sentence of probation; it is only given after all aspects of a crime have been considered. Sentencing laws demand that judges make specific determinations about each convicted defendant, such as if this person is a danger to the community. If not, and the judge believes the offender is sorry for his or her crime and will be a law abiding citizen in the future, probation is an appropriate sentence.
Once an offender receives probation, he or she is immediately assigned a probation officer. Conditions of probation
are set down by the judge in a contract the offender must agree to and sign. The contract lists the kind of behavior (both prohibited and required) the offender must follow during the probation period. Examples of probationary conditions include not owning or possessing a firearm or drinking alcoholic beverages; meeting with the probation officers at assigned times; attending counseling or drug therapy sessions; reporting any changes of address or in living arrangements; and submitting to regular drug testing. Failing to follow the conditions of probation or committing another crime can result in its withdrawal and the offender being sent to jail or prison.
The advantages of a probation sentence over incarceration include allowing the offender to work in the community, earn money to support his or her family, and to have the support of friends and family while attending counseling sessions. Probation costs the state only a fraction of what a jail or prison term costs. Offenders are also spared exposure to the harshness of prison life and the hardened criminals who live there.
Disadvantages of probation include the fear of community residents who believe convicted criminals should not be back on the street because they might commit other crimes. Another concern is how inconsistent probation sentences and probation officers can be in their treatment of offenders. Some counties may send offenders to jail for the same crime where others are given probation. Similarly, probation officers may be very strict in one area and very lax in another. While one officer might report the failure to attend a therapy session as a probation violation, another might overlook the absence.