Instead of sentencing a defendant to a prison term, a judge may choose to sentence a defendant to probation. Probation releases a defendant back into the community, but the defendant does not have the same level of freedom as a normal citizen. Probation comes with conditions that restrict a probationers behavior, and if the probationer violates one of those conditions, the court may revoke or modify the probation.
Courts typically grant probation for first-time or low-risk offenders. Statutes determine when probation is possible, but it is up to the sentencing judge to determine whether or not to actually grant probation.
Even though sentencing judges have this discretion, they must still stay within the statutory limits when granting probation. For example, a judge cannot impose probation for a period longer than the maximum sentence prescribed by statute.
Probation has three primary goals:
- To rehabilitate the defendant
- To protect society from further criminal conduct by the defendant
- To protect the rights of the victims
Once a judge has granted probation, the matter moves into the jurisdiction of probation officers, who monitor the probationers compliance with the terms of the probation.
Conditions are an inherent part of probation. Judges set conditions in order to meet the goals for probation stated above. A probationer must comply with these conditions or else the court may impose a prison sentence or add more restrictive conditions to their probation.
Courts usually have a great deal of discretion when setting probation conditions, but that doesnt mean that judges can set whatever terms they want. Probation conditions must be reasonable. This means that the conditions cannot be vindictive, vague, overbroad or arbitrary. In addition, the conditions must be related to the protection of the public. Also, if a judge wishes to impose special conditions, those conditions must relate to the nature of the crime that the probationer committed.
Judges set the conditions, but probation officers enforce them. If a probation officer finds probable cause to believe that the probationer has violated the terms of the probation, the judge may either change the terms of the probation or revoke the probation and impose a prison sentence.
Because the probationers freedom is at stake, however, the probationer must receive some procedural due process before a court revokes their probation. While the decision to revoke probation, just like the decision to grant probation, is at the courts discretion, the court must go through a few procedural requirements before revoking probation. The probationer facing revocation doesnt have as many rights during revocation proceedings as they do during the original criminal trial, however.
In order to revoke probation, a court must provide the probationer with notice of the proposed revocation and conduct a hearing on the matter. The probationer has a right to testify at the hearing, present supporting witnesses, and confront the witnesses against them. The probationer also has a right to a neutral hearing body, and must receive a written statement containing the reasons for revoking probation.
If there is sufficient evidence, a violation of even a single condition can result in revocation of probation. The violated condition must be valid, however. If a condition is later found to be unreasonable then violation of that condition will not constitute grounds for revocation.