The case for probation

September 11, 2012

Hollywood has never been known to let the truth stand in the way of a good story. As a result, the impression the current slew of court / police television shows could make one believe that probation is never a good thing for the public. Contrary to that vision, many people have had their lives altered by the counseling and restrictions of probation, some to the point of becoming productive citizens. While not appropriate for all persons, there are times that it is very helpful in reaching the goal of the criminal system – seeing that justice is done.
Most persons appearing in court on a misdemeanor in Nolan County are offered probation. This serves both the community and the Defendant. Many laws require that the sentence passed by the Court include both a fine and jail time. Probation allows the Defendant to remain at work and out of jail. It serves the interest of the Court by helping keep track of individuals who are making payments on their fines and court costs while requiring that they pay for their own room and board.
Probation is normally for a period of twelve months. During that time, the Defendant has roughly fifteen conditions to abide by, under penalty of jail.
Many of the probation conditions are basically administrative. Probationers are required to report to probation at least once a month, and more often if required by the officer, pay a probation fee each month, as well as making payments on the restitution, fine and court costs assessed by the court. To help insure that all the conditions are met, the Defendant must allow his probation officer to make unannounced home visits and examine any portion of the home without a warrant. Probationers who live out of county report twice each month, in person in the county of residence, and by mail to Nolan County. Failure to do either can result in a revocation of the probation. Moving without the permission of the probation officer is a violation, as the officer must know where to find the probationer in order to do his job.
Another condition requires that the probationer not violate any law of the state or nation. While it is uncommon to revoke a probation based on traffic tickets, that would certainly be possible. Generally, when misdemeanor probations are revoked for this violation, the person has committed a felony or has committed the same misdemeanor again. Any person can make a mistake; breaking the same law twice in one year indicates that the original sentence is not helping to alter the defendant’s behavior!
Probationers are ordered to avoid “injurious and vicious habits”, alcohol, drugs, and narcotics (unless prescribed by a physician), persons and places of “disreputable or harmful character” and places where drugs and alcohol are consumed. At first glance, that may look a little rough. However, drugs, alcohol and companions seem to take considerable responsibility for the cases that are filed! Obviously, DWI cases and drug possession cases involve persons who may abuse these substances. Many of the checks we collect were written for alcohol. It is rare for those people who are arrested for assault, mischief, evading, and so forth to be sober. All too often, they are in the company of others who have been or are in trouble. The conditions of probation recited above are actually an attempt to help the probationer stay out of trouble – and out of jail. Drug testing is part of all probation orders, even those whose offense did not involve controlled substances. A positive test is normally a quick pass into the jail, especially if the individual was on probation for possession or another drug or alcohol offense.
It is well settled that persons with at least a GED, if not a high school diploma are more employable and make a higher wage than those who do not complete their schooling. Persons without jobs seem to find the time to get into more trouble than the rest of us, and they certainly are lacking in the ability to pay the monies due as a result of their misdeeds. One condition of probation is that the probationer provide a copy of either a high school diploma or a GED certificate within ten days of being placed on supervision. Those who cannot provide the documents are required to enroll in classes with the goal of earning a GED prior to completing probation. Counseling can also be required of probationers; the order is general enough that the officer can order it after he or she has started working with the probationer. Probably the most common type of counseling is for drug and alcohol abuse, but assistance with anger management is often required of people charged with assaultive offenses. At times, family counseling is required, especially when the defendant and his victim plan to remain part of the same household.
Violation of the conditions of probation has serious consequences. Probation is granted as a “second chance”, allowing the defendant to remain within his or her community as a free person. Breaking the conditions is tantamount to breaking a promise to the Court; an action which is not taken lightly. When requested by the probation office, the prosecutor files a motion to revoke the probation. This motion results in a warrant being issued for the probationers arrest. The law does not require that a bond be set on that matter, and, at least for Nolan County misdemeanors, it is rare for one to be allowed. Instead, the former probationer sits in jail until the original jail sentence has been served.
Probation is not the proverbial “walk in the park” that some perceive it to be. It is not uncommon for people discussing their cases with me to offer to pay considerably more money in an effort to avoid being placed on probation. While none of the conditions are particularly onerous, and the goal of the majority of them is to help a person who has been arrested learn to live within society – few people really like it. It does, however, serve a vital purpose, especially with misdemeanor miscreants. By allowing them to remain free, they keep their jobs, and have a chance to reform their behaviors and be productive members of society

Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to editor@sweetwaterreporter.com.

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